The unspoken contract with joy is that to taste it,
we have to swim through pain and sorrow.
Mark Nepo, The One Life We’re Given:
For many years, starting around age 15 when I moved from Illinois to Georgia and lost the foundation of a community of friends who shared my values and supported me in living the counter-cultural Christian life that I was trying to live – which at the time I mostly understood as no drinking, no smoking, no sex, be self-sacrificing, don’t be angry, love everyone. It was a lifestyle that I believed was necessary to avoid going to hell, but that made high school a place where I really didn’t fit in.
When I lived in Illinois, Christianity and high school co-existed in my life with reasonable balance. High school in Illinois felt like a very unwelcoming place, but Christianity gave me a place to go that was better – my church youth group. Moving to Georgia upset that balance. I never found a safe place to land, so it was mostly just really hard.
Granted that the pain of trying to find a place of belonging in high school is not the kind of hard that many people experience — death, parental divorce, poverty, sexual identity struggles, abuse — but human pain is human pain and as we journey together here, I hope hearing my story will help you with yours, whatever that pain may be.
I don’t know whether it would have been any better for me had I not moved – or if I hadn’t been a Christian. My rather serious, sensitive, not particularly assertive, funny or athletic-self does not a popular American high schooler make. But what I can say is that prior to my move to Georgia, food and I had a pretty easy relationship. I ate when I was hungry. I enjoyed cookies and ice cream and broccoli with melted cheese, and pretty much everything else and maintained a weight and size that was healthy for me. There was no angst involved. But at some point in my sophomore year, as I tried to figure out what to do with my pain, sorrow and anger at having lost what had seemed like a lifeline that could get me through the harsh rejections and loneliness of high school, I discovered that I felt a little better for a little while when I ate certain foods – mostly high-carb sugary ones. So, I started eating more of them.
For over a decade after that I avoided “swimming through pain and sorrow” as much as I could. I stuffed it down with food.
Maybe you know what I’m talking about. Maybe you too have a behavior you picked up to avoid feeling pain. Maybe for you it wasn’t overeating. Maybe you address the challenge of the pain and sorrow you couldn't control by not eating. Or by drinking alcohol, or shopping or sex — some activity that is good in and of itself, or neutral, but that became compulsive and ultimately joyless, though it still gives you enough of a boost to keep you returning to the habit.
Maybe you’re still struggling with that habit. Maybe you’re condemning yourself for the struggle too. I want you to know that freedom from whatever that behavior is that gives you some relief but is ultimately not helping you to live the life you really want to live – that freedom is possible. And it doesn’t come from working harder.
In fact, freedom probably won't come from focusing on the behavior much at all.
(Caveat here - if you have a diagnosed issue for which you are being treated professionally, I am not claiming that you should stop treatment! What I say here can come alongside.)
For me there are, and perhaps always will be hints of this tendency to find relief from heartache through food or drink, but I’ve got a good 20 plus years under my belt now of mostly choosing the path of joy – the one that requires going through pain and sorrow rather than avoiding it. Because at some point in my late 20s I learned what Mark Nepo references here.
You can’t turn off the uncomfortable emotions without turning off the amazing ones.
I decided I really didn’t like living without being able to feel joy, so, I made a commitment to allow myself to feel the heartbreaks that come with being alive. I stopped stuffing them away with sugar.
I also stopped quoting Bible verses about the evils of gluttony to myself all the time.
I also stopped telling myself that I was fat and ugly.
I stopped trying to lose weight – which had been a main focus of my life for about 15 years by that point.
I started being kind to myself. Loving myself and my body as it was in that moment along with feeling whatever disappointments showed up in my life.
I tell people I lost weight from the inside out. But this isn’t a story of losing weight. It’s a story of acceptance.
And as I learned to accept my body and myself along with life’s heartbreaks, it opened up space for life’s joys too. It allowed me to feel the safety of being loved as I am – jiggly thighs and all. It also helped me to learn that I’m stronger than I know. I can fall down and get back up.
I didn’t know it at the time, but in the midst of a culture that tells women and girls especially that if we don't look a certain way, we we should not be visible; and that we should not speak, my personal journey to love myself — and life — as they are weakened the power of sexism in me. And then around me, just a little bit more.
It’s part of what led me here, to a place where my day-to-day work involves supporting others, mostly women, to love who they are, feel the pain (and the joy) of life, find healing and kick-ass power to work against racism, sexism and all kinds of injustice.
Whatever behavior it is that you keep doing and wish you wouldn’t, I hope you’ll start seeing it as a hint that something’s off balance, not as a sign that you suck. And I hope you’ll find new ways to accept your imperfect self and the pain of the heartbreaks and disappointments that come with being alive, but not because you should.
Because that’s the path to joy. And justice.
There are lots of ways to get started. For me, the journey started with choosing not to talk about food or my “fatness” any more. It was amazing how powerful that small change was.
If learning to love your body as it is feels like part of your journey and you want support for that journey specifically you might check out the resources at Live Your Best Fat Life with my amazing friend Tiana Dodson or read Susan Hyatt’s book, Bare.
You might want to sign up for my new course Less Stress, More Justice, once it gets released.
Or get my free guide 6 Ways to Go From Surviving the Day to Loving Life.
Or check out the work of Adrienne Maree Brown - I'm about to run out to get her book Pleasure Activism (or maybe my husband will get it for me for Mother's Day - hint, hint.)
And, of course, if you’re in the place where you have an addictive behavior that is dangerous, then part of accepting yourself and life as it is is getting professional help right now – go to a support group meeting, check into rehab, call your best friend and ask her to drive you to that appointment with your therapist you’ve been avoiding. Do whatever you need to do to keep yourself here and alive!
Because you matter. We need you. You have important stuff to do in the world and lots of amazingness to experience along the way.
The way to joy is through pain and sorrow, but life is not just pain and sorrow. You don’t have to stay there.
Much love to you all. Here’s to thriving…and equity.
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