My life has been relatively public over the past few years. Sometimes I feel like I (and my family) live in a fishbowl with the rest of the world watching. During Steve’s battle with ALS, the number of eyeballs looking into our world multiplied exponentially. The great part about that is it created an army of pray-ers that truly helped to get us through that treacherous season. The challenging part was that those looking in often had opinions about how we should fight, treat symptoms, pray, believe, speak and live. Opinions aren’t bad, but it’s impossible to listen to all of them. My blog readership during that time of our lives varied from 10,000-10 million. Literally, MILLION – not the figurative way I usually use it like “I would like to have a million donuts for breakfast tomorrow.” Again, I’m so thankful for the concern that was expressed and the care shown, but along with that came a lot of feedback which initially shook me to my core. I found myself investing precious time and resources responding to emails of people I had never met or hadn’t spoken to in twenty years, defending our treatment choices or any number of other things. Honestly? I regret every minute I gave to that pursuit. It was entirely unsatisfying and completely unnecessary.
After Steve died, I began facing my new life as a widow and a single woman and I made the very intentional decision that I would not steer my choices toward the cheers or away from the jeers of the crowd. I would invite a few wise and trusted voices into my life, I would tell them EVERYTHING and give them permission to tell me ANYTHING. I would then weigh their counsel together with what I felt the Holy Spirit was saying and I would move confidently in that direction. That is what I have done. I am the one on the field; the only one with the responsibility to actually live out my life in a way that honors God and blesses the world. There are coaches around me who give input – but they are not on the field. And there will always be people in the cheap seats and they are also not on the field, but – wow – they can be pretty dang loud.
These good souls have strong opinions and some of those opinions are built on truth, some on their own experience, some on pure fiction. I could spend a lot of time weighing out the motives of the shouters, I could investigate all their claims, I could stop the action on the field and shout back to them to make sure they understand why I’m doing what I’m doing and how there are so many things of which they are unaware. I could tell them that I really am open to instruction and wisdom and my life is absolutely lived in accountability relationships to good people, just not to ALL people. I could go sit with them awhile and try to convert them to my way of thinking in an attempt to protect my public approval rating. But that sounds exhausting and unproductive and very much like defending the game rather than playing it. Instead, I’ve decided to let the cheap seats be the cheap seats. They have opinions and that’s fine. Their opinions may even turn out to be better than mine and that’s also fine. Jesus is at work in me and He’s not dependent on me getting everything right in order to make my life truly good. I can trust Him, and the people He’s put in my life – and so can the people in the bleachers.
If you also have been swayed by the roar of the crowd, I have a few tips for living true to yourself and your God:
- Identify the voices of influence in your life. Pick a few friends who you will trust with your heart and whose advice you will welcome. How many? I don’t know. More than 1 and less than 20 maybe? I really don’t know. I have different coaching crews for different areas of my life but the weighty voices around me number about a dozen. As I began dating, I invited four women – one who knows both of us – to speak into the entire process, no holds barred. And they have. And I value them more than I can say. I made the decision that unless they all agreed, I would not move forward. I don’t think that’s absolutely necessary for everyone, but I’m glad I had that level of security moving into a new relationship.
- Write down the names of your people of influence. See that list? Draw a circle around it. Seriously – draw the circle. You need it, because everyone outside that circle? Cheap seats. These are not cheap people; they’re mostly wonderful and valuable – they just have faraway seats. You’ll still hear those voices, but you won’t give their opinions the same weight because if you let everyone tell you who to be and what to do and how to do it you will lose your ever-loving mind and you will become unstable in everything you do. If someone from outside my circle expresses an opinion that is particularly intriguing or worrisome to me, I run it through the names inside the circle. I don’t try to figure it out on my own. And so far, that process has worked like a dream and the cheap seats comments have always been tossed.
- Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned in dealing with the Cheap’s is to become really, really aware of the fact that for most people, I AM IN THE CHEAP SEATS, TOO. The more you focus on the way you shout your opinions (even inside your own head because you know you do) and the more you realize: Hey, I can just be wildly encouraging here because I don’t have to answer for the way that person plays their game – the more you’ll know how to respond to the weird words that are flung your way.
This has been my year for learning how to love unconditionally and encourage relentlessly, knowing that even if someone is veering off track wildly, I’m too far from the action (and, alas, not omniscient) to give meaningful correction or to understand what’s happening behind the scenes. When I can’t cheer on their decisions, I mostly just cheer the fact that I know the One who is crazy about them will be there if they screw it all up, just like He’s been there when I screw it all up. This is my comfort: We don’t have to be perfect to be loved and accepted and encouraged.
I’ve always said my life goal is to make Jesus proud and famous, but hidden inside that was a third idea – that if I did that just right, people would like me and I am a huge fan of being liked. I like it almost as much as I like donuts and cute shoes. But as I’m beginning to die to the need to please all the voices, I have come newly alive to the voice of the One who holds the world and my world in His hand. I am unendingly grateful for the way He uses the human voices in my life to speak direction and wisdom and joy to me. And I’m thankful for those far from the action – cheering or jeering – because I know God uses them to build my character and to refine my obedience to His will. And He is doing that. I will trust Him with you if you will trust Him with me.
This past weekend I spoke at Westside on how our relationships can be made new by plugging into the power of the work Jesus accomplished for us on the cross. I made a statement about my marriage to Steve and I’ve received so much feedback on it. The gist of what I said was that while our marriage was good, I regret that I didn’t have higher expectations for it. I believed the millions of messages I received from people and movies and statistics that implied every marriage is going to grow older, boring and frayed around the edges. Steve and I settled into some unhealthy relational patterns simply because changing them seemed pretty hard, perhaps even impossible. We never would have considered calling it quits, but there were definitely seasons in which we mostly phoned it in. In 2011, when the clock started ticking on Steve’s time here on earth, we worked more diligently to find health and wholeness. I’m grateful for that time, but I wish we would have believed for it sooner. There’s a difference in the way you resolve issues when you’ve got twenty years ahead of you versus the way you do it when one spouse is dying.
So many people contacted me after the weekend messages to tell me how much that idea challenged them. “I need to believe for more for my marriage,” was the most common idea expressed, often followed by a very sad, “but I’m not sure how.”
I’ve been a pastor for about twenty years and I’m not sure I’ve ever known so many couples struggling to keep their love alive. Many of them are longing for answers that work, but are coming up empty in finding them. I know some would disagree, but: I’m not sure pastoral counseling alone is the right answer for most marriage problems. I can tell you what the Bible says about marriage and relating to one another, but I cannot tell you exactly how to do that inside of your relationship which is loaded with history, brokenness, poor habit patterns, unique stresses, personality differences, etc. Even if I had the training and knew all the answers, I don’t have the time to dedicate to indefinite, weekly meetings with all the couples who need it. That’s why we have marriage counselors. They know the science of emotions and how to apply good practices to hard situations. So, if your marriage is in trouble, I will almost always tell you a couple of things:
- It’s worth fighting for.
- Get thee to a good counselor.
- If you can’t afford a counselor or don’t feel ready to take that step, read this book like your life depended on it. Commit to taking every test and doing every single exercise together. The book isn’t faith-based, but – fear not – you can bring your faith right on into it! Have a date every week to meet and go over your work, or set up a time each day to connect and discuss what you’re reading, learning and feeling. Even if you decide to go to a counselor when you’re done with the book, you will have done enough work to know why you need one. Creating awareness about your trouble spots ahead of time can help save time and money moving forward.
- Raise your expectations about what your marriage could look like if you invited heaven in. Sit together for a bit and dare to ask God: “Your will be done in our marriage as it is in heaven…”
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. But in my heart of hearts, I think it might be enough for a couple that is truly devoted to the idea of an All Things New kind of relationship. I’m praying for the marriages in my family, church and community like never before and believing that they will experience and reflect the beauty of heaven right here on earth.
P.S: You can see my message in its entirety here.
Ever since Steve died, I’ve been starting each morning with list-making. I love lists. Love ’em. I make a couple of different daily lists, but the one that is always steady and most important in my life is the list of Three Beautiful Things.
It’s really simple, I just pick three ways I see beauty in my life in that very moment and write it down. Often it will be connected to a person – maybe a conversation that I had over dinner the night before, maybe something especially wonderful about one of my kids or grandkids, or maybe just a great deal of gratitude for a sustaining friendship. Other times, it’s very broad in scope like the beauty of running water in my home or the fact that our grocery stores are stocked with food or that there is peace in our city. And sometimes it’s a really small thing, like coffee in my favorite cup or finding the very perfect shade of lipstick.
On some difficult mornings, making the list is like pulling teeth. Other days, it’s as easy as breathing and I could keep writing for pages (I never do, though – I stick to three). Either way, I believe that starting my day focused on the big and little very good things in my life has reprogramed my thinking from constantly scanning for threats – which was a necessary learned behavior during our fight with ALS – to watching for beauty. Noticing it. Focusing on it. Believing it’s really out there. I also think this micro habit has positioned my heart to see the beauty in ugly seasons more quickly, and even the beauty in difficult people and conversations.
It’s been so small but so big. So easy but so hard. So simple but so effective. And while there are habits that come and go through different seasons of life, I really believe that until my last day here on earth, I’ll be listing my Beautiful Things in the morning.
About a month into our long-distance dating relationship, Cliff and I prioritized a nightly phone date (we live in cities that are annoyingly far apart and generally only see each other two weekends each month.) This decision was not intuitive or easy. Neither of us are really phone people, and I am definitely not a late night person, but since we both have kids at home and really busy lives, the only time to make communication happen is when our houses are finally quiet and the distractions of the day are done.
In spite of the effort required and the sacrifice of sleep, these dates have become the highlight of my day and the joy of my life. We spend maybe a dozen hours a week talking about life, love, hopes, history, Jesus, goals, work, dreams, kids and…food. Lots about food. Oh, and also laughing! Because we find each other H I L A R I O U S which means the rest of the world doesn’t have to. (You’re welcome, World!)
Sometimes one or both of us is crabby or frustrated from something that’s happened in the day, which is fine – but I don’t think we’ve ever been able to stay that way, which is fun. And sometimes we land on a tender topic and one ends up not being able to speak while the other holds the phone helplessly and prays across the three-hour distance, wishing there was more we could do and be and offer each other in the broken moments. I wouldn’t have chosen for it to be this way. I would choose to live next door. But I also wouldn’t trade this part of our relationship for anything because it’s become so, so lovely. These are the magic hours, filled with words that give depth and meaning to the day we just had and the one just ahead.
We’ve occasionally talked about how couples become disconnected even though they live in the same house. Substituting physical proximity for emotional connection is an easy trap with a dangerously slippery slope. Perhaps all marriages would benefit from spouses going to separate rooms for an hour with their cell phones and having a date made only of words. I realize I’m suggesting something I never would have done in my own marriage and probably wouldn’t have done in this relationship had it not been necessary; but there you have it. I’m discovering as I get older that I can’t afford to get so stuck in my own preferences or habits – I have to be willing to push out beyond them in order to find the beauty that lies just on the other side of The Way I’ve Always Done It. That’s what I’m learning now; sort of late in life, but I’m so grateful.
Finally, if you’re looking for a great resource for building emotional connection in all your primary relationships, I’m loving this book by John Gottman. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Since going public with my dating relationship on Facebook, I’ve heard from lots of widows. They have been kind, gracious and most of all, curious. These brilliant women who have been through enormous levels of loss and sorrow, and who are still processing the way their lives and expectations have changed since their spouse died, want mostly to know if there’s hope that moving on is possible. They ask me things like:How did you know it was time to date again? How do you feel being with someone other than your husband? How can you trust that you won’t go through loss again or that if you did, you would survive a second time?
These questions capture so many angles of the fear and hope that surround widows and the wondering that is attached to nearly every single element of our future, but especially our romantic future.
Here’s where I answer all the questions definitively in a bullet-pointed, well-reasoned, intellectually honest way.
Except I don’t. Because if the question is: “Should I or should I not look for love again?” my answer is: I have no idea. But I have discovered a couple of things I think most widows will need to do, be or believe if they’re going to swim in these waters. Feel free to take or leave ‘em. I’ve only done this once myself so I could have this entirely wrong for you, but this is what has been true for me:
You will need to be brave.
Because it’s hard to trust again. Harder still, to start over again. If you had a brilliant marriage, it will be hard to imagine how anything could be as wonderful. If you had a difficult marriage, it will be hard to imagine that trying again could be anything but heartbreaking. Since you’ve been through loss, it will be hard to imagine how you would survive that loss again. You will need to be very brave.
You will need to tune out some voices.
Many people will have an opinion on when or how or with whom you begin this new season of your life. Their opinions will vary wildly. You will need to determine which voices will be invited into your decision making process. I invited four. They know every single detail of my story, his story and our story, and they have been my sanity. Beyond those four, there are maybe a dozen others who matter very much to me and have been bought along at various points as our relationship developed. Outside that circle of 12-20 people are about a million other opinions which I have come to view as the Cheap Seats. The Cheap Seats are not filled with bad people, but they are filled with people who cannot possibly know all the details or angst or prayer that has gone into this decision and so their opinions – like a broken clock – may be right twice a day, but they cannot be counted upon to inform our choices.
You will need to allow yourself room for mistakes.
Because you will make them. I have made plenty. These mistakes are humbling, but not fatal unless you let them push you into the land of no-risk, no-reward. This summer I discovered something very big about myself: I had been looking at the second half of my life as the time when I would be so wise and experienced that I would be virtually fail-proof (and wouldn’t that be such a relief to my friends and kids and stuff?) One day I had this awakening: I don’t want to live that way. I want to use the resources and wisdom I’ve gained in my 51 years to try something new, to live with all my heart, to lean into the great adventure that is ahead of me. I don’t want to live just avoiding mistakes. So, I said yes to dating, yes to a month in Italy this fall and yes to loads of smaller but still exciting opportunities and I have never been happier.
You may have to be willing to suspend an old mindset (or a couple of them.)
Like…an arbitrary measure of time you’ve attached to how long one should wait to date after being widowed. Or…the need to know for certain that someone is THE one before having a cup of coffee with that someone. Or…that dating is somehow unfaithful to the memory of your first husband. And I would especially suggest suspending the mindset that I have heard more than any coming from widows: “What will my friends/kids/church/coworkers think if I start dating again?” (And the probable answer to that, by the way, is: some will think it’s awesome and some will think it’s awful.) You don’t have to get rid of those mindsets forever, but you may need to suspend them while considering the possibility that you formed them with less information than you have now. You can always go back and worry what everyone thinks about your decisions later.
You will need to give yourself permission to love the adventure.
Because the thing is: Dating is really fun, unless it isn’t. And, like anything, whether it is or isn’t fun often has so much to do with how we view it. It can be a necessary evil, wherein the world is filled with frogs, dogs and no princes (aka: no one who measures up to the memory of our beloved), or it can be a daring adventure, where dates in and of themselves are an opportunity to discover things about us and about the world. Maybe they’ll also produce a fun new friendship, or a run at romance or even the ever-elusive True Love. Regardless of the end result, acknowledging that you will enjoy this season of life rather than resenting it or feeling guilty about it is a good way to set yourself up for success. And I know you didn’t ask for it, but here’s my opinion from the Cheap Seats: You are brave and strong and beautiful. You deserve an epic adventure.
You will not need to leave your memories or your sorrow behind.
Since I’ve talked about dating, people have said it’s good to see me moving on. But, no. I haven’t moved on from Steve or from sorrow. I’ve found that grief is pretty light-on-its-feet. It has a way of finding us in every season. My memories of Steve are less sharp and painful now, but occasionally still quite achey. It is a testament to the good heart of the man I am dating that he has never once resented my need to talk about Steve and process the life I had with him. He holds my memories, my marriage and my still-hurting heart with so much grace and has been a safe place for my sorrow to land. (I could be wrong about this, but I’m going to go ahead and say it: If you run into a man who cannot deal with the fact that you had a life before him, keep on running.)
So, that’s it. Easy, right? Nuh uh. I know it isn’t. I know it’s terrifying and treacherous and feels like one wrong decision will send you and all your people spiraling. I wish I could help you with that, but I can’t. All I can say is that whatever decision you make in this regard, hang on and trust hard. God is good at love; you can count on Him again.