6 years, 6 lessons

1. Protect each other’s limits

Something Kyle and I have been learning over the years is that we have different limits than others, including one another. This year particularly we have grown in applying that knowledge of each other’s limits. In not only acknowledging them but moving into an acceptance of them and then acting in a way that promotes and protects them. In letting our spouse draw their own boundaries and then helping to keep them.

More personally, for me to lovingly respect Kyle’s limits often means gladly and graciously cutting off a show to make sure he gets the sleep he needs. Or recognizing his signs of word fatigue and being willing to cut off a conversation and pick it up again later. For Kyle to loving respect my limits it often means gladly and graciously cutting work hours to make sure I get the rest and reprieve I need from home life. Or recognizing my signs of social fatigue and being willing to say no to a get together with friends and planning one for another time. We all have different capacities. And they matter. We have grown in seeing how failing to respect and protect those capacities can produce burn out and break down. Yet on the other hand, how fighting to respect and protect those capacities can produce health and wholeness.

2. Push each other’s limits

While we have seen the necessity of protecting limits we have also seen the benefit of pushing them. Like in all of marriage, promoting and protecting can create the kind of trust that is required for pushing. We are more likely to allow those who selflessly serve us to also stretch us. Serving does not shove. It does not obtrude or insist. It sees what is good for the other and it gently nudges and urges towards that end. It even reaches out a hand and walks to it together. We are finding, often by failure, that there is a way to serve your spouse based off the knowledge of how they are naturally wired to be yet also a way to push them based off who you know they can be and are still becoming.

Practically put, based off of my above examples, I sometimes stay at things longer than I want to and Kyle sometimes sleeps less than he prefers to. I’m in go-go mode more than is comfortable and he listens for longer than is natural. Sometimes we ask this limit pushing of one another with our words and other times we require it of one another with our actions. This kind of stretching and strengthening is being produced in us slowly and subtly. It is kindly and carefully pushing the line of our limit outward. It is increasing our capacity. It is helping us to flex a weak muscle. It is changing us and challenging us in ways we wouldn’t have been. And we are better because of it.

3. Don’t forget to look

I wrote a whole blog on this a few years ago so I’m just going to quote a part of it because after this year with more work hours, more commitments, and more kids this has never been more pertinent —

“There are three words that have the potential and power to bring some meaning in the mundane and some calm in the chaos. And mostly they have a way of re-connecting two people who are already one, but may feel miles apart… I see you. Behind the work clothes you put on every morning and behind that spit up filled t-shirt. I see you. Underneath loads of laundry and stacked up dishes. I see you. With a greeting at the door after a long day. I see you. When you watch with pride or cower in fear. I see you. Having a dance party in the kitchen or disciplining in the back room. I see you. With tired or tear filled eyes. With stretched or scarred skin. With a heavy or happy heart. I see you. Not just the ways you give and the things you do. But you. A person. My person.”

We are ever learning that marriage is about making the choice to re-see each other again and again and again.

4. Put it plainly

Even after many years with a person, it can feel uncomfortable to point blank say what we want. To quite literally spell it out. As in “I really want to spend intentional time with you tonight,” or “it would mean a lot if you would comment on my appearance more” or “it seems like you’re not pulling your weight around the house as much.” I may or may not have been known to even say “THE NOTE (you know that theoretical one that will be real some day) CAN LITERALLY SAY ‘I LOVE YOU, HAVE A GOOD DAY.’ THATS IT. THATS ALL.”

Sometimes spelling it out makes us feel pathetic. Pathetic that we care so much about seven actual words being written to us on a page and left before work but also pathetic that at this point I might as well have just done it for you and pretended it was from you. But the truth is that sometimes the best way to get from where we are to where we want to be is just to lay out the path plainly. Vague hint dropping doesn’t tend to build the best bridges. That doesn’t mean our spouse didn’t care enough to see what was on the other side, it just might mean that they didn’t quite know how to get you there on their own. Prompting and planning do not have to make things disingenuous. Therefore we can still gratefully and graciously receive them for what they are.

5. Schedule the things that matter

Kyle and I both tend to balk at the idea of being planners. As if being described as one is somehow an insult. But we’ve learned the hard way that whether it’s a date night out or a game night in, life doesn’t tend to do us the courtesy of interrupting itself to present a magical moment of deep marital connection. Moments, ones of investing and enjoying and resting, mostly seem to come from carving out time and then committing to it. From sinking calendars together and setting reminders. This boring and rigid thing called planning actually ends up producing an eager anticipation for the weekly routines and the monthly rhythms and the yearly traditions. For the late Friday nights and the slow Saturday mornings. For the folding of laundry together and the texts that say “let’s sit down tonight and check in with each other.” This year particularly it has looked like sitting down every Sunday night to talk about each day of the upcoming week. To try and pencil plans in according to priorities. And oh how I’ve come to look forward to those beautifully boring Sunday nights of planning and praying with my husband.

I think overall what I’m trying to say is that we’re still learning that relationships are just not as glamorous or spontaneous or romanticized as we like to think they are or should be. That it really takes ordinary people doing ordinary things. It’s mundane and adultish and slightly disappointing. But maybe extraordinary marriages are really just made up of lots of little ordinaries through the years. The little ordinaries that become extra ordinaries.

6. Time really is a good teacher

Recently a quote was shared with Kyle that says, “in marriage there are good years and bad years. This was a very good year.” As I’ve been thinking about the tension of time, particularly as it collides with marriage, I thought there really wasn’t an easier or better way to state it. Marriage is up and down, back and forth, round and round. It is not so much a steady climb or upward trajectory. After all, nothing in life is always and only moving in one set direction.

Yet I think there is another element to time that comes into play. It’s the reality that, in general, time really does change things. And us. I’ve always found it a bit disheartening when people offer advice and encouragement in the form of “it just takes time.” But I get. Because it’s true. Time does have its own unique way of helping and healing and strengthening. Time takes… time. We cannot speed it up. But on our 6th Anniversary I can say that Kyle and I have already been married for long enough to at least begin seeing that life together is full of reoccurrences. Reoccurrences that allow us to keep revising and keep messing up and then keep trying again.

Whether it’s painting a room, hosting a guest, having a baby, or planning for a birthday party… the more times we do something the easier it typically becomes. The twentieth time may not seem as exhilarating as the first, but it usually seems to feel richer and go smoother. Because time teaches some tricks of the trade. It allows us to see where we can bend and where they might break. It shows us how to come out next time and play better as a team. It reminds us what really matters. It allows us to step back and see how much we’ve grown and how far we’ve come. And then it gives us hope for how far we have yet to go.

Because time really does change things.

Navigating differences, diversity, and disabilities with our kids

1. Education and preparation

I always imagined the distinction between kids being raised “in the home” and kids being sent “into the world” to be a much cleaner break. Much more defined and separated. But the reality is that from a very early age, children are ever coming and going. A healthy child’s life is an ongoing intermingling of being carefully sheltered and abruptly exposed, intentionally equipped and utterly unprepared, knowing the answers and coming with all the questions. Because of this, we will never fully prep our kids for all they will encounter.

So while we know there is no possible way to teach our kids every facet of “different” that they may interface with, it is always worth finding ways to intentionally educate them and strategically prepare them to the best of our ability. Because it starts as an innocently curious toddler in the grocery store asking an all too loud question and one day turns into a teenage clique of clones giving those on the outside an all too condescending sneer.

Education and preparation can start at a young age. It can be naturally incorporated into the books that lean on our shelves, the toys that fill up our boxes, the movies that play through our screens, and the food that sits on our plates. As they grow we are the ones who can fill their eyes with all sorts of colors and capabilities, flood their ears with varying accents and impediments, and stuff their tummies with differing cultures and communities. We can go to stores in different parts of town for the sake of exposure and we can visit hospitals and nursing homes for the sake of interaction. We can learn by going outside of our homes and we can also learn by bringing differences and diversity into our homes. As much as we can help it, we shouldn’t let our kids most teachable moments be forced out of us by their own stopping and staring and shouting out questions. But sometimes that’s the way education will unavoidably come, and that’s okay too.

2. Distinguish rudeness vs awareness

Even with an adequate amount of information and preparation, the truth is that kids are uncomfortably curious. They are loudly observant. They are unashamedly honest. And it doesn’t take long to realize that these things can lead to humorous comments but that they can also produce really hurtful ones too.

This is where we can decide what kind of momentary reaction is appropriate to give and what kind of follow up response we may need to bring back up later. When a child makes a remark that is unkind the result can be and should be, correction. Here we can simply and sternly tell them no. Here is where it is right to whisper that we will talk about it later. Where it is necessary to set a rule or a standard or an expected consequence. Where, depending on the context, an apology may be required for their hurtful words. Some examples of what might fall into this category are words like weird, dumb, ugly, or fat. Under no condition can these words possibly be kind, and therefore they are always worthy of correlated correction.

Certain words and descriptions should be locked and linked to sadness and shame. They always only cause sadness and shame in other people and lead to sadness and shame in ourselves. Curiosity, on the other hand, should be welcomed. It should be listened to. It should be answered. There is a place for teaching appropriate voice volume and informing where the best context for curiosity might be. But when neither are applied very well in the moment (particularly at a more unaware age), we should not resort to ignoring and dismissing. We should not react big. Our eyes do have to bug out and our feet do not have to scurry off.

3. Acknowledge differences

In these experiences that feel uncomfortable and awkward, we can choose to take a deep breath and embrace a teachable moment. We can exemplify before our children what it means to stay. It might be appropriate to explain to the other person that our child isn’t very familiar with whatever is probing their curiosity. It might be genuinely welcomed that we ask themselves to explain to our child what something is called or how it works or what their experience has been like in their own body and skin. Or it might be best for ourselves just to confidently answer out loud in a way that is true and positive and informative. For all parties involved, even by standers, to be reminded that acknowledging differences isn’t mean or embarrassing or shameful.

We can use these circumstances to show our kids that mean words lead to isolation but that acknowledging our differences can actually bring us together. It can help us be more aware of others and how they function in the world, and what they uniquely bring to it. They can learn to appreciate what is different and connect in what is the same, if we take the time to let them do so. Kids who see adults run from other people’s differences turn into adults who run away too. We have to teach our kids that differences aren’t dirty. It’s not something they should be taught to avoid or ignore or fear. Of course a person is more than merely what makes them different. But they are also no less than. Differences are not defining, but they are distinguishing.

As Amy Web (author of When Charlie Met Emma) says “different isn’t bad, sad, or strange– different is just different and different is okay!”

4. Celebrate differences

Trillia Newbell, who wrote my favorite kid’s book on diversity, is notable for emphasizing that differences aren’t just something we should acknowledge as true, they are something we should celebrate as good. This is not to dismiss that some differences are indeed marred by sickness and suffering and sorrow, and will one day be wiped away. This is not to naively heroicize or over glamorize the trials and challenges some may have endured due to what makes them different. But it is to ultimately remember that differences are deliberate and therefore differences should be delighted in. The fact that not all variety and variance will be done away with in heaven shows that differences are not a punishment for what we’ve done but that they are a proclamation of who God is. They are, as Trillia so simply and beautifully states, God’s Very Good Idea.

“We live in God’s world. We are all different, and we are also all the same. They might look different or speak different or play different. But they are all made in God’s image, and so they are all valuable. …This is God’s very good idea: lots of different people enjoying loving him and loving each other. God made it. People ruined it. He rescued it. He will finish it.”

And even today, we can begin celebrating it. We can stay and acknowledge differences in front of our kids, and then we can stop and verbally celebrate them. Our kids should hear us say things like “isn’t that cool they were made like that!” Or “yes! God is uniquely reflected in them just like He is in you!”

5. Emphasize asking not assuming

Amy Web who is quoted above (who is also the mind behind 90% of this conglomeration I pieced together) writes that “the line between pity and empathy is razor thin. My general rule to differentiate between the two is that empathy stems from listening to another person’s perspective and reacting accordingly. Pity, however, assumes. Assuming that a person with a disability automatically has a harder, sadder life because of their disability.”

Once again some differences are hard, emotionally or relationally or physically, for the person embodying those differences. But instead of pitying or assuming, we should teach our kids to listen and to learn and to empathize. To respond based on another persons actual experiences and not what our child perceives those experiences to be. We can teach our kids to see others not as just “disabled” but “differently-abled.” We can teach our kids, whether as a child in the store or a middle schooler on the bus, to ask good and kind and clarifying questions. To engage. To listen. And to learn. To not dismiss the differences of others but also not to define them solely by those differences. To know when to say “I don’t know what that’s like, maybe you can help me understand.” And to also know when to say “yeah, I feel that way sometimes too.” We can teach our kids that others may enjoy the same exact things that they do, they just might have to go about enjoying them a little differently. But they can enjoy them differently, together.

6. Teach more than kindness

Amy also so powerfully points out that the goal we are aiming to teach our kids is about more than kindness. It is about friendship and inclusion. Kindness smiles, nods a head, and keeps passing by. Friendship walks towards, puts out a hand, and invites in.

When our kids see us grit our teeth and hear us threateningly whisper to “be kind” they begin to see that person as someone they must obligatorily sacrifice a minute of their time for. Pay their dues to. Check off their nice-things-I-did-today list. When the base line requirement is quick kindness we teach them that they are the only one who has something to give. And we beg of them to give it, if even only for a moment. Of course we do not want our kids to shout at someone shamefully or ignore someone intentionally. But in the end is it really so much better to instruct them to pity someone politely? Who really wants to be othered and ostracized, even if it’s done “kindly” or belittled and bemoaned even if it’s attempted at “sweetly.”

But this is where we must do more than just insist and instruct. We must exemplify. We must show that we are willing to act on the sometimes scary and often vulnerable initiative that inclusion takes. We have to show our kids the lengths that we ourselves will go to, to include and invest and invite. So we call the mom. We admit that we don’t exactly know what the play date or party could look like for them to be included, yet we emphasize that we want their child’s presence and participation, in whatever way might be. We humbly open ourselves up to not having the answers but wanting to work alongside another parent who will work hard to get the answers with us and for us. The same parent who has always worked hard to modify and make ways for their child to be included and befriended. If we are not willing to include and invite, how can we expect our children to?

The results of not teaching them, both by word and by action, how to do this touches us all. As parents, as children, as teachers, and as care givers, we are only robbing ourselves and the world of the unique kind of beauty and joy that being in relationships with those that are different than us can bring. We are choosing to let our kids buck against a way in which they were created to live and to love and to learn.

And in the end it is likely our own child who will miss out on the fruit of inclusion that often bears fun and formative and long lasting, friendship. The real kind. The kind we all need.

Year 29: mottos and mantras

For my birthday this year I decided to jot down some mottos and mantras that I want to mark, at least in part, year 29. This is not intended to be a list of the deepest or truest things about me. Rather it is a small sampling of go-to phrases that I have or do seek to speak into existence in my own life. Some are old, some are new, some are borrowed… and none are really blue. But maybe they will resonate with you too. Or spur you on to come up with your own.

Thanks, friends, for another year of journeying with me and for counting the words I write as valuable of your time and brain space. There are so many voices.. thank you for listening to mine. It’s a humbling gift so many of you have chosen to give me through the years. And I don’t take it lightly.

YEAR 29 HERE WE GOOO.

I do not have to bow down to my feelings nor kick them to the side

It’s true that sometimes emotions need a reset. A walk, a talk, or simply a really good night of sleep. It’s a wonder how emotions can look so different on the other side of them. Often, momentary emotion does not have the best depth perception or offer the most accurate vantage point. But, on the flip side, I’ve realized the harmful mentality of I am/you are “just being emotional.” As if emotions are categorically irrational or misguided. Sure they can result in irrationality or misguidance, but they themselves, are not. Therefore they are not to be discarded as inferiority or weakness.

29 year old Natalie wants to do better about saying things to myself and to others like “yes I’m feeling really emotional about this, but it doesn’t mean what I’m saying isn’t accurate or valid or necessary.” Boiling blood can lead to battle. Sorrow can lead to empathy. Grief can lead to depth. Exuberant happiness can lead to lifting and lightening spirits.

My emotions aren’t “too much.” They are dreadful masters, but they are powerful guides. And they should know their place, and then take it.

I am a joyful wife and mom

I heard this mantra recently and it resonated with me immediately. Not because I always am, but because I want to be. Because I want to change some deeply rooted projections and perceptions of myself as a sort of “kill joy” mom or wife. And rewrite them. I all too often see myself as an uptight and impatient mom. Or a nagging and neglectful wife. I want to be a wife and a mom who spreads smiles. Who is playful. Who laughs without fear of the future. Who enjoys. Who embraces. Who is simply a pleasant presence. Who is grateful. Who is deeply rooted in peace which finds its expression in joy. I am these things, and want to become them more.

My 29 year old self will continue to speak into who I want to be “Nat, you are a joyful wife and mom.” To write it in my journal every morning. To pep talk it to myself in the mirror. To sticky note it above my sink. To ask the presence of Jesus and his unshakable joy to permeate all I am and all I do. Won’t He do it.

Good for her, not for me

I also heard this one a while ago and am claiming it as my own. This isn’t a snarky “good for her” or an ashamed “not for me.” It is a realization that some things work for others that don’t work the same for us. It is a reckoning with the reality that their good isn’t always the same as my good. It is being able to genuinely cheer others on while simultaneously having security in the way we ourselves choose to do something. It’s a claim that declares that self worth is not decreased or elevated by comparison to another person.

29 year old me is striving to look at another woman’s life, choices, successes and set up and humbly yet confidently say “good for her, not for me.”

Jesus cares about them, or that, more than I do

Although I would never flat out say that I’m “better” than God at anything, I sure can live like it and think like it. I can let myself believe that I am somehow filling in the gaps of His own lack. Maybe I proclaim that holistically he is “more than” me, but in the day to day I can live like justice will not prevail, mercy will not win, and compassion will not be extended, if I myself do not do it. But I’ve been humbly reminded again and again this past year that His heart is the pure original and mine is but a pale reflection. He is all good things in their fullest form. He made good things have their form and he himself is their form.

My 29 year old self will fight to remember that I am called to carry out the heart of God. To be hands and feet. But by no means do I myself make up the heart of God. His heart, in pale and part, is made up in me. And I will preach the gospel to myself that the very heart of God is what sent his innocent son and the savior king to be crucified on a cross as a criminal. I can never weep more longingly, exact justice more perfectly, be moved more sacrificially, or love more fully, than the one who died for me. And for the whole world.

No matter what happens today, a tall frosted glass of milk and a beautiful piece of chocolate will congratulate you on the other side of it

Milk and chocolate do not talk back. They change not. They fail not. They judge not. Most beautifully put, “chocolate is comfort without words.” And dang it sometimes we’re worded out. But never comforted-out.

So me as a 29 year old will wisely listen to the words of Tom and Donna on Parks and Rec to TREAT YO SELF. And for every single day that makes up another year of this life that I have been given- before my head hits the pillow to pray or to plan or to cry or to crash- I will indeed TREAT MYSELF. Because the days are too long, and our life is too short, not to. My heart needs unshakable truth and my soul needs unchanging chocolate.

6 tips on vacationing with kids

1. Stop calling it a vacation

I’ve heard it said that vacationing with kids is really just normal life picked up and put in a different location. And I would add with potentially more tantrums and tiredness. Parents included.

Despite all our hopes and dreams, kids do not hear the word vacation and decide to put their own needs aside for a few days so that their beloved mom and dad can get some rest and rejuvenation from all the hard work they do day in and day out. Yeah, pretty inconsiderate.

While changing the word “vacation” to something like “trip” clearly hasn’t and couldn’t change everything, it can definitely begin the work of eliminating the potential for so many unspoken assumptions and unmet expectations. Personally, it has helped me to see that my glamorized version of vacation is not the only way to have fun and to make memories. And that vacations can be reserved for my peaceful kids-out-of-the-house future, where I’m on a carefree cruise with no earthly idea of what time it is because there are zero schedules to keep (or arguing with my husband about directions to the resort, either way) instead of toting 7 large beach bags towards the water and yelling at small humans to stop complaining about the hot sand and hurry up because we don’t have long before nap time.

2. Give grace

Often as parents we shame or punish our kids for feeling the exact things we do, but dealing with them in their own child-like way. We resent them for not handling change and stress and overload in the very adult and mature ways that we ourselves are not even handling it all in. Family trips can be fun, but they can also bring on a lot of new emotions. And kids feelings are no exception to this.

My own mom reminds me faithfully, in word and in action, that mamatudes are contagious. We can think we are being silent and subtle, but our expressions and demeanor are potent and powerful. When we are snappy and stressed or anxious and insecure, it spreads. Knowing this reality can lead to a lot of pressure to appear perfect in front of our kids. So that our families then look perfect. Especially on what is supposed to be a care free family vacation. But the surprisingly freeing news is that there will never be a perfect trip enjoyed by perfect people. So instead of setting tense tones or plastering on a fake smile, we can acknowledge to our kids and spouses “we’re all feeling lots of things, and we all need to show each other extra understanding and grace right now. Mom needs it too.”

3. Chill out and let it be

I don’t know about you, but having someone tell me to “chill” is just about the surest way to make me throw off every last chill that was still hanging on. But finding ways to whisper to myself that “it really is fine” is often that small but vital shift in perspective that I need. While life doesn’t stop when you leave town for a getaway with your family, it undoubtedly looks different. Life outside of our home, or town, is never going to look exactly like life inside of it does. It sounds obvious but I think we forget that. I know I do. Things are just simply going to look and feel and be, different.

Maybe recognizing that location change lends itself towards all sorts of other change will help us to relax a little. Maybe it will help us stop pushing against the inevitable. Maybe we will be prone to say yes a little more. To later nights and to sleeping in (or to waking up earlier to get going on the fun). To bigger feelings. To different screen time usage and more treat consumption. To risks. To stretching ourselves. Maybe we can restrict a little less and fudge a little more. Maybe we can prioritize fun over formality, for a short time.

We can take from trips what they have to offer each time. This time it may be adventure and laughter. Next time it could be quality time and growth. It might even give moments of rest and nuggets of rejuvenation. It could be utterly exhausting. Whatever it offers though, it’s a blip on the radar of a life filled with ruts and routines. We can learn to take it for what it is instead of projecting all of life onto it. Our kids aren’t ruined. Their teeth aren’t falling out. Their attitude isn’t locked in forever. Bed time isn’t eternally shot. We can chill out a little.

4. Don’t forgo all boundaries

While I’ve learned the importance of “loosening up” when traveling with kids, I’ve also equally learned the importance of setting and keeping clear limits. My own personality prefers a very slow transition from one thing to the next. I, to an annoying extent, get disjointed when I feel like I am abruptly throwing myself from one thing to the next. I crave time to mentally prepare before something and time to decompress/debrief after something. My husband has to lovingly remind me to die small deaths to myself by being more ready and flexible. But, we’ve also together learned the importance of “naming what matters” to us before we go into any given situation. Especially big ones. Like family trips. To verbalize our expectations, our hesitations, and our goals. Even as simple or silly as they might be sometimes.

I think we all need this sort of prep-work to some extent. Especially kids. They need to be told explicitly what is expected of them and reminded plainly what will happen if they do not meet that expectation. We have found that it works best for us all when we set some sort of rule or requirement and follow up with some sort of if/then statement. As in, “if you choose not to show gratefulness while we’re at the water park today then you will sit out for a while.” Etc.

Family trips should have a noticeable separation from normal life but they cannot be totally divorced from it. We have seen that when kids lose all sense of boundaries they lose a sense of safety and stability. And that they actually deep down crave it. Even during, and maybe especially during, the most unordinary times.

5. Check in with each other

Each trip has its own pace and so sometimes regrouping as a family just means turning natural down-time moments into more intentional ones together. Other times though, it takes creatively carving time out of a busy day to separate from other people or activities and check in with yourselves.

As our kids get older we have begun to see the touchy yet necessary balance of “sending out” and “reigning in.” Our kids want to feel independent and free, especially when they have new options of what to play with and who to sit beside. But they also need to be reminded who their home base is. And to have some sort of semblance of regrouping. That could be as small as asking them to run over and give you hugs or high fives. Or all praying together first thing in the morning or singing together last thing before bed. It could also be bigger, like sneaking away for a few hours as a family to make a memory. Or sitting across each other at a table and asking how everyone is doing and what each person is feeling. Checking in. Getting on the same page. Reunifying.

There are many ways to accomplish it, but I think the most important thing is communicating to our kids a family value that will prove to stand firm in the midst of everything else being out of whack: you belong. It will remind them that they are not just to behave like one of us, but that they belong as one of us. This is about reminding them where authority lies, but also who their main team is and always will be. In good times and in bad, whether they like it (or us) or not, we are each other’s. Given by God.

6. Enjoy yourself

As moms especially, I think it’s easy to be so busy trying to make everyone else happy that we forget that time away, whether in a cabin or on a boat or at an amusement park, is ours too. We, too, can adventure and rest and laugh and play. We can make and take time, too. We can allow ourselves to take a step away and breath or to take a step back and observe or to take a step in and experience.

We want to be able to look back at pictures of a happy mama. Not an exhausted one who was busy trying to force everyone else to smile. But one who couldn’t help but smile herself, as she chose to embrace and enjoy the chaotic and imperfect beauty that was all around her.

Our family, not so, vacation.

Do we hold these truths to be self-evident?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”

 

These words were declared long ago, and they have been declared many times since.

As “declare” implies, these words have been uttered with much heart and passion and vigor and through the years. They have been proclaimed as undeniable truth written on the consciences of all. They are rooted in conviction, covered in morality, and said with great American pride. The words grip us as well as ground us. They feel powerful as well as pure.

Yet we simply cannot go on ignoring the irony. During this time, while human rights were being defined on paper, they were very literally being taken away in real life. The exact same hands shackling a man in slavery wrote that all were created equally. Life was beaten. Liberty was obstructed. Happiness was withheld. Safety was not sought. While these famous words were printed into our future as a fact they were simultaneously being re-defined in the present by reality. They were engraved by human hands but ignored in human hearts. Its beauty has hung as a loud banner above us yet its blasphemy has been laid as a silent foundation below us.

As I’ve been thinking a lot about our current state of civil unrest, rooted in the past and twisted up into our present, a word keeps coming to mind. This word or idea is not an attempt to give a one-size-fits-all approach to issues varying in complexity and severity. I hope I am not oversimplifying or under-emphasizing. Yet I think this category with its differing reasons and ranks inside of it (including racial injustice) are worth taking a step back to recognize on the whole. To see as a broader theme. We might not even notice it but I’ve become convinced that this broader theme shows up in our own day to day interactions. It manifests itself in everything from belittling comments, to abusive behaviors, all the way to murderous acts. It is ranging from daily pornography to deadly prejudices. It has been trickled down all around us and rooted itself deeply inside of us.

Dehumanization.

Webster defines this as “depriving someone of human qualities, personality, or dignity: such as a: to subject someone to conditions or treatment that are inhumane or degrading b: to address or portray someone in a way that obscures or demeans that person’s humanity or individuality c: to remove or reduce human involvement or interaction in something, such as process or place.”

We, too, can be guilty of soulfully pouring over the Declaration of Independence for all peoples while blindly practicing its contradictions right around us. How then, along with fighting for liberty and justice on local and national levels, do we also bring it down to our neighborhoods? Our schools? Our work places? Our very own houses?

I think we need to do the raw and dark and deep and good work of re-humanization.

 

Re-establish what gives human dignity

The annoyingly obvious question we should never cease to ask ourselves is “why?” I think this is especially true when we see that our lived realities are not mirroring our proposed reasoning. Consenting to the truth of a definition is not the same as acting out of its implications. Maybe during this specific time in history we are being given a chance to stop and examine. To ask, in the face of pandemics and protests, if our definition of human value is lining up with our response to black lives begging to breathe or vulnerable populations asking to be protected?

Ekemini Uwan says, “once we accept, and grieve, that our old way of life is gone, we can build a better future.” If we want to move away from our old normal and towards a better normal we have to be really really honest. Painfully so. And we begin at the beginning again. We ask ourselves to define human dignity. To re-establish what is every person’s worth.

For me, the unshakable barometer of all living being’s value starts with a Creator. A Maker. One who crafted all human beings in His very image. Not apportioning himself in varying degrees of whom he favors. But to all. Completely equal image bearers. Given a mind and heart and even a soul. As David Closson says “Man is like a statue erected by an ancient king—as the statue bore the image of the king and signified rulership, man bears God’s image in the cosmic temple of the world, representing his authority and dominion. Man is the visible representation of the invisible God. If one wants to know what God looks like, simply look at man, the crowning jewel of creation and the only creature made in God’s image and likeness.”

Without some source of a foundational definition we have no starting point. And without a starting point we cannot convince anyone else, let alone ourselves, of what true liberty and justice will look like for all. Or why it even matters. It shapes the lenses through which we see the most bloody times in our history and the most horrific happenings in our present day. Without it, what moral leg do we have to stand on against slave trade and school shootings? What basis do we start with when talking about the horror of the holocaust and the devastation of massacres? What do we make of genocides and plagues and terrorist attacks and different kinds of wars? How do we speak out against human trafficking or domestic violence or child pornography or sexual assault? It is not enough for any of us to say that something simply is. Dignity and equality do not define themselves. That’s why entire people groups have been abused in the name of superiority, used as means of punishment, and written off as primitive animals without a soul.

Once we have established, or re-established, our unwavering definition of human dignity we have to begin the hard work of realigning the every day ways we think and interact and respond, back to it. If in the end our words and our actions continue to be impossibly ill-aligned and unrecognizable from one another we have to be willing to ask do I really, thoroughly, honestly, believe this to be true about all humanity?

Re-prioritize people to their place

Sometimes we realize that we have begun to subtly assign and apportion human dignity based off of underlying beliefs that are different than what we claim out loud for them to be. For some these beliefs have been silently shaped over time and we do not like them when they are exposed to us. While for others they have been consciously chosen and we do not want to change them. They may stem from our belief in divine design or natural designation. We may think they come from evolutionary make up, societal shaping, generational history, or personal choices. We may end up recoiling over our deep down barometer for human dignity or we may, in fact, revel in it.

Wherever we land, though, I think we must land there consciously. We cannot move on into any sort of action, or really even awareness, until we have gotten really honest with ourselves. Until we have meticulously thought through, for ourselves, what qualifies human dignity. Until we have concluded if there are ever any exclusions or exceptions to this qualification. Until we have critically assessed our definitions and called out the parts that have begun to be bent away from its original form. From there, where we spot inaccuracies and inconsistencies in our rawest form and from our deepest places, can we identify what is bubbling over on the outside. Can we see its out workings and implications.

One of these gauges and indications is where our priorities lie. Naturally, we desire things such as power, pleasure, possessions, and praise… even over people. When this happens we begin to see a person as a mere object standing between where we are and what we want. We then make the choice to either remove them as an obstacle or use them as a stepping stone. But that’s not our only option. We don’t actually have to land there. Instead, we can see what the layout of our placement and prioritization is becoming and we can do the continual work of putting people back in their proper places. Realigning them with our truest definition of who we have already established that they are.

So we take them out of the middle. Again and again and again. The middle is where they are reduced to merely a means of our own end. But when they are placed on the other side, they become a person again. They are repositioned to become the end itself. The focus. The priority. The point of value. It is here, directly in line with us, that we can actually exercise power, experience pleasure, enjoy possessions, and give/receive praise in mutually healthy and beneficial ways. We can function as one. Not as objects of helps or hindrances to where we’re headed but as human beings with equal worth and irrevocable dignity.

Re-define how it plays itself out in society

When the choice we are handed lies between people and possessions the answer seems fairly obvious. Unnatural to choose, perhaps, but hard to actually argue against. But what would it be like if instead of just dethroning power and praise over people, we had to choose between actual personhood? If we were somehow faced with the choice between which two people could live. What then, would rise to the surface in us? Would our definition of equal dignity and worth for all human beings quickly become met with a barometer full of assessments and questions? Maybe our instinct would be to consider their ages, or factor in their accomplishments, or weigh their contributions, or compare their records.

While we ourselves will likely never be faced with such a choice, what happens in us when we hear about a gang related shooting? An elderly lady passing peacefully in a nursing home? A firefighter not making it out of a burning building in time? A person of color begging for breath? A child’s heart monitor no longer beeping? A prisoner being beat to death?

In the midst of everyday headlines filled with tragedy and trauma we are left with the choice to listen to our own visceral reactions and mental responses. To be mindful of our internal questions about the person. To pay attention to our assumptions based off of where they were and who they were with and what they were wearing. When we sit with our own honest responses they will answer the question for us of who we deem more deserving of death and who we see as less worthy of life. When we are present with ourselves in this way we can actually catch our minds going to the places we do not want them to and then we can do the repetitive work of realigning and reminding ourselves why none of those things matter. It is in these small and crucial moments we can convince ourselves once again that all human life is equally dignified. And then we are conscious of where we allow our conclusion to go. About them. About humanity. About life. And even about death.

Dehumanization, though, is not just about dying at the hand of injustice. It is also about living from a place of inequality. Those we deem most tragic in death, we will also see as most worthy in life. We may not ever say that a person is not actually worthy to live. But, to what do we assign their quality of life? Is it one of equal opportunity for education and position? Is it one that is given a strong voice and sought after as a needed presence? Is their mind just as smart, their body just as capable, and their being just as strong?

Our degradation and objectification of others comes out in the every day ways we respond and relate to them. In the manner we address them in and the time we give to them. It seeps through in the ways we esteem certain jobs, praise specific positions, and place power with select people. This shows up in the way we smile at the CEO behind a desk and ignore the homeless person behind a sign. In the way we greet the guest at our front door and mumble a hurried hello to the server at our table. In the way we engage or dismiss children. In the way we talk tenderly or mockingly about the elderly. In the way we clap for those who wear uniforms and yell at those who answer our phone calls. In the way we keep together those who are the same and cast off those who are different. In the way we classify intelligence and dismiss disability. In the way we label foster kids as troubled instead of laboring with them as traumatized.

Being worthy to stay alive is not the same as being worthy to really live. To live in a way that we all long for: without being treated as inherently inferior or locked in as innately less than.

 

Re-build what has been lost

“When we see people without recognizing that they have a story, we become pornographers. Pornography almost by definition lacks a story.” I think Ragan Sutterfield was on to something far more than only poses and pixels. The same effortless reduction of a person into a prize for our own self pleasure does not just stay on our screens. It manifests itself into the people we pass by quickly, the newcomers we get to know slowly, and the classmates and coworkers and church members we interact with daily.

They could be young or old or rich or poor. They could have thousands of followers on Instagram. They could have dropped out of high school. They could have graduated with the highest degree. They could live in the suburbs or the city. They could be a white person walking down our street or a brown person grazing our shoulder in a grocery store or a black person pulling up next to us in a parking lot. An immigrant or an international student. One who is pushed in wheelchair or relies on a walker. They could be wearing a suit or sagging shorts. Someone who is bilingual, reads brail, or communicates with sign language. They could have eyes that are stone cold or ones filled up with tears.

But what do we see?

Do we see a service or a statistic or a social status? Or do we see a story? A lived experience. A survived trauma. A family they come home to. A job they lost. A generational cycle they were born into. An addiction they are overcoming. A disorder they are functioning with. Do we hear their voice behind their language, see their skin beneath their clothes, and remember their blood beneath their bodies?

As Lore Wilbert powerfully puts it, “when we enter a room, we often forget the blood—the story—pulsing beneath the skin. When we divorce a body from the story—the humanity and the life—that God has given it, it becomes a mere object to us. We can no more separate our blood from our bodies than we can separate our story from the bodies who have lived through it.”

It doesn’t matter who they are, where they come from, or how long they’ve been in our life; we can simply forget what it means for someone to be wholly human. There is a lot inside there, living inside of them, that we forget to see. To look for. To ask about.

We are all too quick to forget that people are dignified- with bruised skin, with broken bones, with beating hearts- fully and fiercely, dignified.