Recently, I led a group in which I gave each person a clear glass stone. As we walked outside in the sunshine and breeze toward our meeting spot, I asked the group to consider why I had given them the stone. After a time of reflection, each person shared his or her insight: “It’s a symbol of our higher power.” “You want us to use it as a grounding tool and a way to be present.” “We can associate it with our regrets and fears and then throw it in the pond.”
Each answer offered a profound angle on the reasons behind holding a simple objet.
We then talked about the question of “why,” verbalizing some of the deeper whys we have held deep within us during our lives: Why was I abused as a child? Why do my children have to suffer from my addiction? Why did my mom kill herself? Why did I get cancer? Why am I an alcoholic? Why me?”
Questions of “why” are normal for those of us navigating pain and loss. It’s the cry of our soul to make sense of defeat and difficulty and injustice.
The question of why needs expression. We need to give voice to the nagging uncertainty and exhausting fears buried in the deep pockets of our hearts. We are not alone in our questions of why. Spirituality has always made room for these questions:
“Why have you forsaken me, God? Why have you left me alone to suffer? Why am I being torn down and crushed?” Coming to God with our whys is the kind of authentic expression our spiritual connection is made of.
But “why” questions can become consuming, sending us into hopelessness and paralyzing despair. They can wrap around our souls, blinding us to hope and light. If we focus on the “why,” the “when” or the “what if,” we quickly lose sight of the present moment where healing is taking place.
The world and well-meaning friends and family want to offer cheap answers to make us feel better: “It was her time to go.” “Your addiction was given to you to help you grow stronger.” “You were abused so you could help someone else.”
The answers are offered in an effort to quiet a staggering pain that doesn’t go away with shallow clichés. Quick answers are often dismissive of our real feelings.
We seek to find answers to why things have happened out of a need for meaning and control. If I know my pain has a deeper purpose, then I can make sense of it. If I believe that everything happens for a reason, it will bring comfort now.
And THEN I can heal.
But sometimes we don’t know why.
We may have insightful theories, but we can’t always be 100% certain of why loss, addiction and pain are a part of our story.
Instead of focusing on knowing why, the group began to see the endless possibilities of healing, change and connection now that the stone was in their hands. Their initial “why” answers offered insight regarding how the stone could bring life. The group didn’t need the “why” answered in order to see the stone as a connecting point with a higher power. The stone offered help in staying present and aiding in emotional processing, regardless of why the stone ended up in their hands.
After we give voice to the “why”, we can choose to ask a better question: “What can I do now that this is a part of my story? Who can I share my feelings with? How can I let go and heal?”
One group member had lost his dad to suicide and was able to be present for another man with a similar story. Regarding the “why,” he said this: “My dad didn’t kill himself so I could relate to someone else’s pain, but because it happened, I had the opportunity to comfort my friend.”
Our “why” questions may be answered in time. It may be farther in our journey of healing that we see, not that the pain or loss was “good”, but how pain and loss don’t have the last word.
Share your raw, frustrating “why” questions while also knowing that healing can happen without definitive answers. Spirituality is an experience, not an informational exchange. So grieve, rest and recover, knowing that even when we don’t understand, we can still experience peace.
-Chris Gibson, MDiv
For so long, the majority of us have suffered from deep thirst—the kind of soul-thirst that longs for real peace. But in our desperation to change the way we feel, we’ve often been willing to take whatever love and happiness we can get.
There’s an ancient Jewish story that tells of a group of people who acknowledged God with their mouths, but who lived lives of hate. The rich and powerful were terrorizing the poor. The people as a whole had moved away from their code of love and had become self-absorbed, greedy and cold, executing horrible acts of violence and oppression.
Although their God was outraged by their countless crimes of hate and murderous cruelty, this God also saw that the crimes sprang from a deeper foundational issue. The crimes were intolerable, requiring correction and accountability, but in order to get to the root of the problem, the Divine presence initially dealt with the crimes of their hearts.
They’d become disconnected from their true identity and instead were consumed by self-reliant attempts to get their needs met while rejecting the love of the Divine.
“My people have committed two crimes: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and they have made for themselves jars—broken jars that can hold no water.”
These people had previously experienced life-giving relationships and freedom through connection with the Divine. In relying on God, they had the opportunity to find contentment, joy and security. However, as these people moved away from God, they took matters into their hands, attempting to control, harm and use people to gain the power and security they wanted. They rejected the fountain of provision, instead trying recklessly to make jars—broken jars that couldn’t bring enough soul-provision to offer any kind of peace and joy.
They rejected peace and were drowning in destructive attempts to gain what could never bring peace.
I’ve spent most of my life searching for ways to change the way I feel. I’ve used my gifts, personality, insecurities and intelligence to try and get what I thought I needed.
And I’ve made countless broken jars.
Even when the broken jars failed, I kept relying on myself, trying harder to achieve lasting happiness. It was my hope that if I could only be good enough or sober enough or smart enough that the jar would do what I wanted it to do.
But the solution isn’t found in learning how to make better jars—the solution comes as we admit we are powerless and cannot take care of ourselves. We were made to receive. We weren’t made to make jars—we were made to be jars—jars that receive the acceptance and love of a Power greater than ourselves.
As we turn our lives and wills over to the God of our understanding, we will be met with an unending supply of the hope, new beginnings, forgiveness and strength that we need—we can receive from the fountain that which brings life.
This divine love and guidance is available whether or not we feel we deserve it or even when we feel broken beyond repair.
Even when we try to escape, even when we’ve exchanged real love and acceptance for counterfeit and temporary relief, the spring of water is still there.
Broken jars have sharp edges. I’ve caused myself significant pain by holding on to pottery shards. I’ve not only rejected healing and real acceptance, I’ve also endured unnecessary grief.
The pain I’ve tried to avoid has only increased. The shame I’ve tried to fight has only grown. The rejection from which I ran has become suffocating.
Broken jars don’t work.
Our hands need healing. Our shattered hearts, skewed perspectives and hurting souls need the provision that comes through frequent encounters with a God of our understanding.
Self-reliance doesn’t work because it wasn’t made to work. Instead, our Higher Power invites us to turn over our lives and wills. We can experience peace as we allow ourselves to be filled. We can experience guidance, comfort and love as we connect to the spring that never stops giving.
Chris Gibson, MDiv
Velcro Shoes and Living
My friend Jay wore Velcro shoes every day for five years straight. He assumed he’d never be able to tie his shoes again after a work accident took his right arm five years prior. When he was taken to the hospital, he was unresponsive with no pulse, but by some miracle, he lived.
After the amputation, Jay, a strong man with years of recovery, sat in a chair with a pistol by his side for a month, debating whether he wanted to live or die. Then one day, Jay sensed God say, “I saved your life for a reason.”
So Jay put away the pistol, got up, and decided to live.
It wasn’t an easy road. He struggled with the psychological and emotional ramifications. He had to navigate the social difficulties—knowing that people saw his arm before they saw him. He faced unemployment when potential employers were unable to look past his disability. He dealt with the neurological challenge of trying to open a door with his right hand and the shock that it was no longer possible.
There were countless moments of deep discouragement.
One night, Jay stumbled across a YouTube video of a little girl demonstrating how to tie a pair of shoes. As he watched this girl’s determination, he realized that she only had one arm.
He was again face to face with the choice of moving forward or giving up.
He watched the video over and over and over again, and the next morning, he bought a pair of shoes—this time with laces.
Jay is a survivor. He’s not only survived death and significant emotional and psychological pain, but he’s also survived the slavery of addiction.
Yesterday, Jay pointed out to me that all of us in recovery are survivors: “How many times do we have to pick ourselves back up? Chris, God let us live.”
Jay is a picture of both determination and surrender. He can’t change what has happened. He can’t fix his permanent loss. But he doesn’t have to live within the confines of what could easily be a consuming limitation.
In the same way Jay practiced tying his shoes with one arm over and over and over again, we can practice new recovery behaviors. We don’t start our recovery journey with 10 years of experience and completed step work.
With God’s strength, we can learn a new way of life, realizing we aren’t limited by what we lack or what we wish we had. We can be happy, joyous and free. And we don’t need an ideal past or present in order to experience peace.
We can learn to rely on a Power greater than ourselves. We can learn through honesty, openness and willingness how to live every day in light of the reality that we’ve been spared death. Others may not be able to see past our former addictive behavior, but we don’t have to buy into the shame and fear of outside opinions.
“The only things I’m afraid of,” Jay says smiling, looking at his prosthetic limb, “are woodpeckers and termites.”
Jay has decided to live, despite his addiction and despite what others might consider a deal-breaking limitation. He kept applying for jobs. He kept practicing new ways of living life. And his thinking has changed.
Sometimes it takes our weaknesses to put us on the path to real life, a life that can only be lived as we let go of self-reliance and turn our wills and lives to the care of God.
But we must allow ourselves to be taught. A video of a little girl tying her shoes showed Jay what was possible. In the same way, our friends in recovery show us what’s possible. They, too, had to learn a new way of being and fight the urge to give up.
But we are survivors. We’re alive for a reason.
This truth can shift our thinking away from self-pity and toward a God who is for us.
And even in the midst of struggles, we can practice a new way of life, even if it means learning to tie our shoes.
-Chris Gibson, M.Div
I love whales. Love. My bucket list includes riding a humpback whale in the waters of Maui someday. I’ll be the crazy 90 year-old woman you watch in the viral YouTube video who jumps off a tourist boat in the middle of the ocean.
Before I had a million kids, I spent a month every spring in Maui during the humpback whale breeding and birthing season. As often as I could, I’d sit and watch huge baby whales in view above the water’s surface.
The mothers took the posture of nurturer and instructor, feeding their babies 400 liters of milk per day, and teaching the calves to do whatever it is that whales do.
The mother would jump up, and then her baby would try and jump. The mother would lift her right fin, and the calf would make her best attempt. Each move the mother performed was imitated in the calf’s attempt to figure out how to live and thrive.
These 1.5 ton babies are born measuring an average of 15 feet long. There’s no doubt that even at birth, they already meet the physiological qualifications for being a whale. But the magic happens as the calf figures out from the experienced mother what it means to be the whale that he already is.
Recovery often challenges our previously held views of what it is to live and interact with others. Our program also requires us to shift our view of what it means to be in connection with a Higher Power and specifically, what it means to trust this Higher Power’s guidance and willingness to take care of us. In this relationship with God, we often find that we have to hand over our old ways of thinking in order to receive truth:
I am valuable. I can practice acceptance. I am loved. My past does not define me. I don’t have to be in control. I can be free.
If our past experience involved earning love or approval, we have to practice a new way of thinking in sobriety in which the Divine love does not hinge on our past mistakes or our ability to perform. As we turn our lives and our will over to the care of God as we understand God, we are met with peace—a peace that extends beyond what we do and instead cuts to the heart of who we are. We are all born 100% worthy of love and belonging. We did not come into the world performing in order to be taken care of or valued.
But early on, we all learned a similar message: we must act a certain way in order to gain approval. We must coerce or manipulate others if we want to be loved. When we make efforts to earn acceptance and love, we take a step away from our true selves. Recovery offers us the chance to reconnect with who we are as those who belong to God. This requires a significant change in perspective. As we connect with and are taught by our Higher Power, we can practice acceptance and self-care, and we can let go of self-reliance, dishonesty, fear and resentments.
The baby whales did not become whales when they learned how to breach. The calves didn’t become whales the longer they swam. These smaller whales have a set identity as those created to swim and jump and tail slap—but as they are guided and as they practice, they learn how to be the whales they already are.
Connection with God brings about a newness of life, contentment and grace that is ours for the taking. But it’s up to us to let ourselves be guided. We can choose to make the effort to learn to listen and rest instead of attempting to take care of ourselves. Recovery is not about our length of sobriety—it’s about our willingness to be taught and to practice openness and honesty. We become who we already are as we create space through prayer, meditation and willingness to hear from the Divine Love. And this is our path to joy, peace and freedom.
-Chris Gibson, MDiv
For most of my life, I’ve regarded plants as nature’s picture of peace and gratitude, quietly growing with no worries or fears. I’d never considered the possibility that plants could be selfish, life-sucking back-stabbers. My opinion on nice little plants changed when I read an article on a scientific concept known as Plant Root Competition. This phenomenon occurs among plants that are growing closely together in an area with limited resources. The plants may put on a nice face above the surface, but underground, the roots are in full-blown competition with one another. Wherever there is a soil or nutrient shortage, it’s go time—It’s every plant for itself.
Plants that grow in crowded spaces go to desperate lengths to survive, seeking to get as many nutrients as they can from the earth. The plants become threatened by their neighbors, taking more nutrients than they need as often as they can. The roots begin to over-allocate nutrients for its normal processes. As a result, the plant can’t function properly, leading to stunted growth, the inability to reproduce, and very quickly, the plant dies.
Before recovery, I felt the ongoing need to take care of myself. Convinced that no one would take care of me or meet my needs, I believed I had to do whatever I could to make sure I was going to be ok. I operated out of a mindset of scarcity, as if there were limited resources of love and affection in the world and I had to fight in order to be happy. In this soul-trapping lie, I believed if someone else received love or approval, it was a threat to my own sense of worth. If someone else was regarded as pretty, successful or smart, it lowered my own value. Instead of growing beside other people, I began to see others as threats, relying on my ability to compare and compete in order to get what I thought I needed.
The mindset of scarcity infects our culture with fear and anxiety, convincing us we must manipulate, steal, lie and use in order to gain love, acceptance and affirmation. When we hold this mindset, we move through the world as if we’re covered in double-sided tape, seeking to take whatever is not bolted down. The fear of not having enough or not being enough drives us to do whatever we can to avoid the painful feelings of emptiness and despair.
And it’s an exhausting way to live.
When we come into recovery, we’re introduced to the reality that we are powerless: our attempts to control our drinking, the past, and the actions and thoughts of other people have completely failed. We have the opportunity to acknowledge that we lack the resources we need in order to take care of ourselves. Without connection to our Higher Power, we don’t have what we need to bring about the kind of free, authentic life we were created to live. All our attempts to take care of ourselves have the same results of Plant Root Competition: our growth is stunted, we can’t offer life to others, and our souls begin to suffocate.
The concept of our powerlessness, while a difficult truth to swallow, is also an avenue of freedom. The admission of powerlessness means I no longer have to live in fear of being out of control and instead, I can surrender to the truth that I never had control. I don’t have to try harder, drowning in exhaustion from my futile attempts to perform to earn love or behave in order to achieve acceptance. Our attempts to arm-wrestle out of the world what we think we need will never bring about the peace we crave. Instead, we can turn our lives and wills over to the care of God as we understand God, trusting God to give us what we need to thrive.
In this place of surrender, we can live in peace instead of fear. We can practice acceptance instead of wallowing in despair. We can love instead of judge. This is the gift of serenity offered by the Divine Love who invites us to learn to rest. It is only as we let go of self-reliance that we are able to grow.
-Chris Gibson, MDiv