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
As a kid, I loved Halloween because it was the day it was encouraged and expected that I would put my energy into altering my appearance. I could be anyone or anything I wanted to be. I could wear makeup or clown shoes or put a coat hanger through my braids to transform into Pippi Longstocking, and I’d always complete the ensemble with a cheap, flimsy mask.
I had a love/hate relationship with those masks. Bright side: For this one day I was anonymous, choosing who I wanted to be. Down side: the unforgiving plastic instantly created a personal, suffocating face sauna and the eyes and mouth holes never matched my facial structure, making breathing and seeing a legitimate challenge. The kicker was the unreliable elastic string, specifically engineered to snap 15 minutes in to the trick-or-treating excursion.
Recovery has exposed me as a chronic mask-wearer. I not only spent most of my life trying to change the way I felt but I also put my energy into controlling what people saw. Out of my own deep fears, I sought to cover up my struggles and my pain, terrified that I would be rejected if I were actually seen.
We’ve all tried to wear masks. These masks are uncomfortable, unforgiving, and unreliable. Despite our best efforts, within a few minutes they become obstacles to breathing, seeing, and connection. We wear these masks out of our deep fear of being seen on the outside how we are feeling on the inside.
We often hide because we believe the mask is our only shot at gaining acceptance, belonging and love. Recovery offers the alternative to covering up—it offers the chance to reject the masks and accept ourselves. In order to heal, the masks have to come off.
Our amazing Art Therapist, Rebekah, wrote the following reflection after a recent session:
“How do I present myself to the world? Do I give the world what they want to see, a man or woman who has it all together? Do I present as perfect and in control? Do I present as a hero ready to rescue anyone in distress while underneath wondering if I will be accepted if I am unable to be the nurturer 100% of the time?
Is it ok for me not to be ok? Do I use sarcasm to hide my fear—the fear the world will see me as weak as I see myself? Do I hide and make myself invisible, sliding under the radar so no one will see my shame or the overwhelming pain I feel?
Do I show up as the know-it-all in order to prove to the world I am worth listening to? Do I dress up or dress down to cover up my insecurities or the fear that I’m not worthy of approval?
What do these masks do for us? They have sometimes protected us from pain and risk. They have kept us safe in unsafe situations. However, they become toxic when we believe the mask is real or when we don’t know how to let our guard down in safe places. Our masks keep us from vulnerability and connection. Yes, it’s risky to show the ones we love what truly lies beneath the surface and we may not even want to face it ourselves, but real connection is where the healing begins. When we take the masks off, we can face the reality that we have fought for so long to hide. We can learn to process our pain, fear, grief and feelings of inadequacies in a safe place instead of covering them up. Letting go of the mask is difficult, but it’s the only way to move forward.
But what if people can ‘t handle the real me? What if it’s too scary and I’m rejected or hurt? What if I can’t handle facing the pain? It is a risk, but without facing pain, the fear and anger will stay with us, and we will remain in false and shallow connections, feeling alone in a crowded room.
The first step is to be honest with ourselves about what we have kept hidden. Be aware of the real feelings, not judging ourselves for covering things up, but recognizing that the coping mechanism of hiding doesn’t work. We can give ourselves permission to let our masks go. Through our vulnerability, we show others that they are safe to let their masks go as well. We don’t have to hide. We don’t have to rescue others. We can support, listen and be present. When we heal our own pain, anger and fear we can be present for others.”
It’s time to be authentic. It’s time to learn self-acceptance. We’ve been afraid of being ourselves for long enough. It’s time to take off the mask, embracing the love and acceptance of a Higher Power who sees us as we really are.
-Chris Gibson, MDiv
Last week, we moved into a house two doors down from the one we were previously renting. I was warned that a move down the street could be harder than a move to a different state. This was proven true as I made countless trips with a loaded up red wagon going from one house to the other.
In addition to our handful of kids, we have two cats and a dog. Our codependent dog didn’t leave our side, but Crumbs and Crookshanks, the twin tabby cats, weren’t so sure about the new house. Every time I went to the old house to pick up remaining hair ties, batteries and whatever else fell behind the couch, the cats tried to come in with me. Even though their food and supplies were at the new house two doors down, they waited at the front door of the old house, meowing to be let in.
As any normal human would do, I tried to reason with my pets: “There’s no food for you here. We moved. There’s nothing here for you anymore.”
There are days when this scene describes my recovery.
Entrance into recovery is an incredible, soul-lifting, hope-giving move into new life. We’ve been freed from the old prison of addiction and the futile, destructive ways in which we’ve tried to care for ourselves.
Yet, the old voices are still familiar. The previous attempts to get what we think we need are always outside, asking us to reconsider our journey of recovery. We’ve learned enough to know there is nothing there for us anymore—any shadow of addictive behavior is just that—a shadow, incapable of truly satiating our deep hunger.
Yet when we are stressed or alone or in pain, when relationships are difficult or we’re misunderstood or sobriety doesn’t “feel” good, we may find ourselves outside of the old door, wanting to go back to what we’ve left behind.
There’s nothing here for you anymore.
We’re naïve to think there won’t be times in which we want to step off the path of peace and connection to question what we’ve left behind.
“Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. What if I can’t do this new life?”
At times, recovery feels too unknown or too difficult.
Even in the midst of life’s challenges, the journey of recovery provides a way to receive what we need, through connection to ourselves, a Higher Power and others. The old ways don’t work. They never did. They were never capable of giving us what we needed. They were avenues of temporary relief, but it came at a high and soul-crushing cost.
When we are hurting, our vision can become clouded. In confusion and frustration, we wander back to the old door.
Countless times a day, I had to pick up my cats and carry them to the new house. I did this until they were willing to come in on their own.
There are times when we experience pain, rejection and loss and we forget the gift of recovery. We may be tempted to shut our eyes to real love, acceptance, grace and provision. It’s in these moments we can listen to our friends in recovery and our Higher Power who reminds us that we don’t need to stand outside of a locked door.
The Divine Love has offered a way out of the self-made hell and this same Higher Power will continue to remind us of the unending love, guidance and strength available to us.
We are the only ones who can walk away from the old door—no one can do it for us. But as we turn our lives and will over to the care of God, we will receive strength, comfort and energy to choose new life.
There’s nothing here for you anymore.
But within our recovery, we find the connected life that offers far more than we ever could have imagined. And taking this life, allowing our Higher Power to guide us, letting others love us—these things will direct our steps to the hope and strength we need.
-Chris Gibson, MDiv
My dear friend Katie is a real life sunshiney-care bear. Every time I hug her, I swear I get glitter on my soul.
During my recent visit to her home in Florida, she came home from work emotionally spent.
“We had a memorial service today,” she said flatly. “Who has a funeral at work?!”
Katie works at Matthew’s Hope—a ministry that cares for people without homes, people without jobs, people who struggle with addiction and people who have lost almost everything. It’s a place of new beginnings, extending hope and recovery to those drowning in despair.
Every day, this place provides hot meals, haircuts, toiletries, educational classes and daycare. Beyond the value of practical tools, meals and education, Matthew’s Hope offers a sense of belonging.
These community members may have different stories and backgrounds, but they share a common familiarity with pain, defeat and loss.
In five years, there have been 45 deaths in their community. One day a year, this nontraditional family comes together to remember those they have lost.
This particular day, the community gathered around a table displaying pictures of the five people who had recently passed away.
After the unconventional and slightly irreverent eulogies, five men carried five bricks to the candlelit table—bricks bearing the names of those who had died.
Everyone in this community knows the sandpaper-y fabric of difficult lives. Dying can be lonely, but so can being alive.
One man, struggling with alcoholism, had been a part of the Matthew’s Hope community for a few years.
A volunteer pastor recently found him sitting out in the cold.
“Get in,” said the pastor. “It’s too cold.”
“Nah,” the man said. “I’m ok.”
“Get in! You’ll freeze!”
“Nah,” he repeated. “I want you to know I’m ok. I’m really ok.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean with this whole God thing. I know he loves me. I get it now.”
This man had found a place of peace, even in a cold, unforgiving parking lot.
He died a week later in his tent in the woods.
Each person gathered that afternoon has their own story—stories of being in prison and gangs, stories of brutal abuse and neglect, stories of dropping out of bible school and falling into drug addiction, stories of losing jobs and families and hope.
It was in this setting that a pastor spoke about a divine Love. He stared at the pictures of those who had recently passed away, saying over and over again that these people are God’s children. His words were not empty comfort or forced hope.
His message was reality. Being the beloved of God was far more real than any of the labels or words these people had carried during their lives.
He reminded the community that the love of a Higher Power is not earned by living in houses or avoiding substance abuse or keeping a job.
We don’t do anything to earn belonging or love. God cares deeply about people who live in the woods, people who have group funerals, people who have suffered so much.
One younger guy stood in silence the entire day, and as the 5 bricks were added to the other sacredly placed 40 bricks, he spoke.
“Maybe being loved by God is all that matters.”
We sometimes forget that being loved by our Higher Power is all that matters. We forget that in the love of the Divine there is no hierarchy. Our pain, rejection, struggle and even recovery have nothing to do with the reality that we belong.
This kind of love and acceptance motivates us to change. It can be a catalyst to a new way of life. The old is gone and now hope and belonging push us toward freedom. We can be fully alive despite our mistakes and failures if we are willing to see ourselves not through the lens of the past, but through the reality of our Higher Power’s presence and deep, deep love.
And this is an incredible motivation to keep going, not because our Higher Power demands perfection, but because we are driven by a love that is far more for us than we could ever be for ourselves.
Chris Gibson, MDiv