Full Plates and Starved Lives

“Mom, I’m hungry.”

For those of you who have ever resided with a teenager, you too may be intimately familiar with that particular declaration. It is, quite possibly, the phrase I hear spoken most often by my beloved son. I quickly came to recognize the challenges of satiating the hunger that comes with an active body, growing from a child into a man. Unless you love being in the kitchen – of which, I do not – one or two meals are all I am prepared to concoct. That leaves satisfying his hunger in-between meals entirely to him. The sequencing of events goes something like this: He declares his hunger. I offer several nutritious options; he opts for a bag of chips or other junk food, providing momentary satisfaction – but empty calories are not sustaining – leading him back to me a few hours later with further, “I’m hungry” utterances.

While I’m tempted to roll my eyes at his repeated folly, I would have to admit the landscape of my life can look much the same way. I feast on achievement. I snack on control, power, and security. I nibble on relationships, love, and praise.

If I could shed ten pounds. GULP!

If I could secure this raise.  SLURP!

If I could just get him/her to change. CHOMP!

If I could purchase….. GLUG!

I consume until my belly becomes distended. I dine until my plate is full. And then it’s God’s turn to lovingly raise His eyebrows at me when I turn towards Him and say, “I’m still hungry.” 

With each day, whether or not we are aware of it, we embark on a journey to crest the summit of abundant life. Since the creation of mankind, man has sought this zenith. What determines and defines abundant life is unique to each of us. For some, its roots are based in fulfilling relationships. Others seek to embrace the experiences and wonder this life and our world have to offer. Still, others pursue influence, in its various forms, to author and enable change. Our characterization of abundant life is as dynamic as it is distinctive. It evolves over time: as we age, obtain new experiences and knowledge, as we define and clarify our values, as our circumstances and external environment reshape our perspectives. By themselves, or in combination, these pursuits are worthy and good. So how is it that we can often feel bloated and famished at the same time?

Much like I stock our pantry, our world is filled with a bounty of tasty morsels intended for our enjoyment. When we partake without intentionality, what would have been sustenance can quickly morph into empty calories. As we stand before the storeroom of life, surveying its contents and considering our choices, our mindset will ultimately determine what we reach for; we will either be relief-focused or purpose-focused.

When we are relief-focused we are most concerned with a reprieve from pain, discomfort, and distress. We tend to reach for that which will quickly alleviate the gnawing sensation in the pit of our stomach. While we may immediately dull the ache, we fail to address and, or recognize the source of our need. In much the same way our brain triggers a hunger signal, not because we need food in our belly, but because we need nutrition in our system, our heart will alert us to aspects of life which are less than they were intended to be. When we neglect the root of our longings, our lives can become obese with broken relationships, overloaded schedules, and stretched finances.

Keep in mind, there is nothing inherently wrong with choosing a relief-focused remedy. The nature of freedom is that it gives rise to choice; we can choose relief or purpose. At times, relief is exactly what we need. When relief becomes our default, either because we don’t recognize an alternative or because we don’t know how to pursue one, we become bound to a life that is less than; forfeiting the very freedom we long for.

When we are purpose-focused we put-off immediate gratification and withstand the ache while we do the work to achieve a greater aspiration. Being purpose-focused directs our sights towards that which is beyond our immediate craving; remedying the source of our longing rather than the symptom. In doing so, we not only pursue our objectives but along the way we discover we are stronger, more courageous, and more adaptable than we had previously believed. We endure loneliness while we seek deep connection. We go back to school to broaden our horizons. We invest in healing old wounds so present relationships may flourish. We curtail our spending on frivolous purchases to reinvest in meaningful consumption. When we nourish our souls in a purpose beyond the “now,” it lifts us from our present circumstances and engages our hearts in a greater calling. Then we can dine and be satisfied.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Don’t Mow Your Emotional Lawn

As winter melts into spring Saturday mornings take on a new tone. The drone back and forth begins around 8:00 AM and meanders throughout the neighborhood; each home regularly and meticulously grooming their lawn with neat, crisscrossing patterns. The way we ensure our yards flourish is by having clear delineations between what we allow to grow and that which we keep at bay. Grasses are groomed to thicken through growth and regular mowing, weeds are plucked at the root to ensure they do not rear their heads again later, flowers are carefully pruned to ensure their blossom reaches its full potential. In this clear-cut environment mowing makes perfect sense. However, we often are not just mowing our lawns but our emotions as well.

Growing up I had a heightened emotional response to most things. I think the term I heard most often was “too sensitive.” A baseball strikeout would lead to a surge of embarrassing tears. I would head back to the dugout to be met with heckles from the other boys or a gruff, “brush it off” from the coach. A teacher’s reprimand would result in a flush of humiliation and tears forcibly withheld just below the surface. When happy, my joy would spill out everywhere. I would bounce off the walls only to hear the rebuke, “Settle down!” Everywhere I turned my exuberant heart was being asked to conform to a predetermined spectrum of emotional expression. While there is a time to hold emotion for a moment, in order to release it later, I was never taught how to do it. Rather, I was taught to mow my emotional lawn. Day after day, I took my emotions, sheared them off and buried them deep within me.

Emotions are a gift. They reflect the inner workings of our hearts. They are a window to the soul; providing a vivid view of how we respond to the world and people around us. Our emotions can provide us with remarkable opportunities to examine our own heart and our relationship with others if we tend them well. Yet, all the while, well-meaning and well-intentioned people in our lives are communicating a very different message; emotions have no place here. We are told to “get over it,” “move on,” “suck it up,” or “look on the bright side,” as if lingering with our emotion is foolhardy. It’s as if we enter a dark room where we need to sit and process our emotional film and someone keeps flipping the flipping light on! Our ability to explore the roots of our emotions, gage our reactions, and grow in our character is immediately eroded. 

Why shouldn’t we take the lawnmower out? Unlike pristine suburban yards, we do not know our emotional landscape and delineations fully. There are no boundaries between our emotional grasses, weeds, and flowers. In fact, our hearts are deceitful and may urge us to cut the wrong things. It’s only by sitting with our emotions and cultivating their growth that we begin to differentiate between what should be pruned, plucked and fertilized. At times, we may even need to rely on an emotional horticulturalist (a.k.a counselor) to help us identify what is growing, whether it’s healthy, and how to uproot or nurture it!

Grasses are temporal emotions. These emotions generally spring up in response to something that happens around us, or to us, but fade away with equal ease: joy, surprise, laughter, confusion, sadness, disappointment, fear. For the most part, emotional grass is low maintenance; with regular watering and shearing they can become a rich landscape on which we live out our daily lives.

Weeds are the smothering scourge that interferes with healthy emotional responses. They entangle our relationships and stunt their growth. Anger, pride, self-doubt, anxiety, and fear can all become emotional weeds. They are like their physical cousins – they can’t just be cut down. When we try to stifle our emotional weeds, we cut them off temporarily but scatter the seeds to more parts of our heart. The only way to truly remove the weeds is to seek help plucking them out.

Our emotional flowers reveal something in us that is a God-given gift. The seeds for these gifts were planted long ago and will sprout on an emotional scale at various times of life. Bursts of joy may signal an area that is filling your cup. If explored further, those bursts may be grown into passion projects or new careers. On the other hand, areas of loss or deep grief could be preparing your heart to walk alongside someone else who has experienced a similar loss.

Our hearts were designed to feel deeply. Recognizing the difference between grasses, weeds, and flowers helps us grow into beautifully relatable people. The next time you are tempted to cut your emotions short, leave your lawnmower in the garage. Instead turn to a friend, to a spouse, or to God with what is in your heart and tend to it. You may find that instead of just having a groomed exterior, you can cultivate new life both within and without.

Photo Credit: Brian Fee