fearless.

What is your biggest fear?  What are you most afraid of?

That was the question of the night when the church girls and I went on a weekend trip this summer.  It’s a question I would have never thought about asking.  But, if I’m honest, there are a lot of things I am afraid of.  Like spiders.  Those guys are creepy and fast.  And most other bugs.  “Blood and guts” as my girls say, are fine but bugs are gross.  My friends all had different fears.  Losing the people they love, dying, rejection.  All super legitimate.  I don’t know that any of us are fearless.  And maybe that’s a good thing.  We should be wary of wandering out into the street, feeding wild animals, playing with matches and all the other things your mother told you not to do.  Fear and worry sometimes work to my advantage.  In my line of work you prepare for the worst case scenario.  You think of all the things that could possibly go wrong and then work to avoid them and then figure out how to fix them if they occur.

But, in general, I’m not sure fear does us a whole lot of good.  When we are afraid we move away.  We walk to the other side of the street, we go to the end of the line, we don’t raise our hand.  We miss out.  One of my best girls painted a canvas for my youngest when she was born.  Her life verse.

Psalm 46.

“God is our refuge and strength.  A very present help in trouble.  Therefore, we will not fear.”

Say whaaat?  I will not fear. Um, I’m not so sure.  I will not fear…except for when I face something new or unexpected.  And maybe when things are tough.  Oh and spiders…still fearing spiders over here Jesus.  But what do I fear most?  What seems impossible when it comes to “I will not fear?”  Suffering.  Loneliness.  Failure.  You see I’m not afraid of deathScreen Shot 2016-09-11 at 7.51.48 AM.png but I am afraid of suffering prior to dying, getting defeated by illness, and then no one showing up to my funeral.  Funny how fear works.  It seems to find the things deep inside you where you are most vulnerable and remind you of why you put them there.

Today pastor Jason and I went on an adventure course.  We did a 75 foot high tower ropes course, a vertical drop, zip line, fun slides and a rapid rafting course.  I was afraid and thrilled all at the same time.  I’m wearing a harness and watching other people older and less agile than me do all this stuff and manage to not die…but still.  There’s a part of your brain that just can’t quite shake the feeling that flying 80 feet in the air over a river and then back is not that safe of an idea.  That place deep inside begins to creep up and tell you to be afraid.  But then you do it.  Mostly because the old guy in front of you managed to be courageous enough to do it. Partly because your dad has done it and you can’t chicken out on something your dad has conquered.  And it’s amazing.  You realize what you would have missed out on had you not stepped off that ledge.  And you’d take the step a dozen more times.  The fear doesn’t disappear but knowing what is on the other side makes it seem so much smaller.

I think fear keeps us from taking that first step in so many places in our lives.  When I am afraid of suffering I will never move out of my comfort zone.  When I am afraid of loneliness I miss out on those quiet spaces of rest and refuge.  When I am afraid to fail I miss out on all the good things that come with doing something hard, something new. When fear controls us we are powerless to change.  Will I be killing all the spiders at our house from now on?  Nope.  But the next time fear creeps in I’ll try and remember what it felt like to take that step off the ledge and into the air today.

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(photo credit ultimate selfie at Riversport adventure in okc)

empathy in transition.

This week marked the 7th year since one of my best friends lost her father to lymphoma.  She was 35 weeks pregnant at the time.

Loss is a terrible transition.  The Pastor would say that all transitions in life are difficult, even the good ones.  That learning to navigate transition and helping others walk through it is a sign of leadership.  I see that.  When babies are born mothers become grandmothers, husbands become fathers and sometimes everyone loses their mind.  Why?  Because it’s a transition.  A similar thing happens when we transition from caregivers to patients, from leaders to members of the group, from the beloved to the unloved.  I think what we need most in times of loss, in times of transition, in times of need is not advice, is not prayer, is not experience, but is empathy.

What does it mean to be empathetic?  Simply, as Merriam-Webster would say, it is to understand and share in another person’s experience and emotion.  I think we assume that empathy is easy.  That our culture appreciates it and puts it into practice regularly.  I’d like to respectfully disagree.  I believe that empathy is a learned practice and that we have little practice or patience for it.  You see, being empathetic takes time.  It means we are choosing to sit with another in their silence, in their sadness, and attempt to understand.

In medicine we must practice empathy.  Our patients experience pain, loss and transitions we have never been close to experiencing.  Sometimes it’s easy.  When we cut on someone’s body in an effort to cure them we know that they will be in great pain.  It’s not hard to empathize with the hurt that our incisions inflict in an effort to heal.  We may not have experienced pain to the magnitude of our patients but we understand what pain is and can walk with them through recovery.  Sometimes it’s not so easy.  Our patients experience things like stillbirth, complicated medical illnesses that destroy and debilitate, poverty and hunger we may never know.  We can imagine what they may feel and experience, but it is much more difficult to empathize: to understand and share in their grief may be close to impossible.  Finally, our own experience may get in the way.  Someone who experiences pregnancy and delivery in the same way I did is easy to empathize with.  Another who has a more difficult time may get less of my empathy since they aren’t dealing with the daily grind of carrying another human around in the same way that I did.

When Jamie stood up in the front row of the church with her pregnant round belly shooting forward in her black dress and her tears streaming down her face as she said goodbye to her father, I had no idea how to empathize.  I could not even begin to imagine her grief.  I’m sure my empathy in those early weeks and months was pretty mediocre.  But now we have sat together in sadness and sometimes silence for 7 years.  And she has taught me what true empathy is.  It takes practice.  It is uncomfortable.  It means asking hard questions about thoughts and feelings.  It means walking with someone through the most difficult transitions and staying with them for as long as it takes to get to the other side.

So whether you find yourself in the midst of a difficult transition, or you are in the role of walking with someone through that transition, remember empathy is your greatest role as a Christian, as a friend, as a care provider or just as a human.  Prayer, advice, experience all have their place but empathy will reach further than any of those and change you as you change the lives of others.