Monday, August 14, 2017

Self-Esteem: The S Word

I remember hearing once when I was a child - in a sermon or a Sunday school lesson or maybe a home group Bible study - that self-esteem should never be a focus in raising children. Making a point to raise a child's self-esteem was teaching them to look inside themselves for worth instead of finding it the Lord. Teach children to find their worth in Jesus, and they will instead develop a sense of value far greater than any "self-esteem" or "self help" book ever could.

I don't think this a mainstream Christian teaching, but that message stuck with me for a very long time. It's incredible how one little message, as off base as it may be, can shape the way you view yourself. The term "self-esteem" was a bit of a dirty word to me growing up, and I avoided it. In fact, any "self" word, unless it was self-denial or self-control, carried bad connotations for me. In all my formative years, I shunned the concept of self-esteem as New Age hocus pocus. As I grew older, I rarely talked about my self-esteem but couched the concept in euphemisms like "worth" or "significance" found in Christ. Mentioning any problems with my self-esteem felt too focused on me and not focused enough on the Savior in whom my worth was found. If I had a "self-esteem" problem, it was more likely that what I really had was a pride and sin problem.

I think even the healthiest of us struggle with self-esteem. We have all received messages through our lives that have told us we are not good enough at this or not important enough for that. Too fat, too skinny, too stupid, too nerdy, too bossy, too sensitive. How can anyone deflect all the messages that are thrown at us all the time by everyone and everything around us? But even more so, when the very foundation of your belief system is based on the message that you are inherently wicked, how can you possibly develop any kind of self-love? 

For years, I believed my worth was entirely found in Christ. Without Christ, I was worthless and depraved, my good deeds were like filthy rags. These were the more sophisticated messages I absorbed as I grew into an adult. As a child, I just knew I was a sinner that needed to be saved. As I grew in my faith and in my study of Scripture, I internalized these foundational messages about my origins to immunize myself against pride and any truly self-centered esteem I may have for myself. The term "self-esteem" no longer seemed a dirty word, just a very worldly way of trying to fill the hole of depravity in ourselves that only Christ could fill.

My "self" esteem was actually "salvation" esteem. So when I lost my faith, I also lost my source of value. 

When your self-esteem is built upon a strong foundation of self-denial, self-deprecation, or even self-loathing, and is designed by materials that come from a source outside yourself, you are at risk of collapse. If your self-worth is built from someone else's view of you - a significant other, a parent, a deity - and that external source of worth falters or disappears from your life, you will be lost. When I my source of esteem disintegrated, I had no idea who I was or where my value came from. Without Christ, I believed I was nothing! I went through a period of time feeling very lost and purposeless. I had faced the fact that I didn't believe in God anymore, but even though I could see my past worth had been based on something unreal, I was still left with an emptiness I could not fill. It still seemed so self-centered and arrogant to assume I could find worth from within myself, but if it wasn't in God either, could I possibly be worth anything at all?

I no longer found worth in Christ but still saw myself as intensely wicked. I wanted to explore aspects of myself that had always been deemed sinful and displeasing to God, but I couldn't do so without hating myself for having those feelings or questions. Without the Bible telling me these things were wrong, I was able to evaluate so many things through a different, more objective lens, but not without guilt and shame. 

I've talked about it before, because it was such a liberating moment, but things began to change with the simple lyrics to a song* I had been listening to:

But luckily I held out long enough to see
everybody really makes their own destiny.
It's a beautiful thing.
It's just you and me, exactly where we belong,
and there's nothing inherently wrong with us.

Suddenly it all fell into place. Not only could I put away the judgment and guilt I'd heaped upon myself for all those years, but I could put away the very notion that I was born depraved and sinful. I had the capacity to make decisions for myself, good or bad. I had the sense to figure out what made something good or bad. I began to redefine all "good and evil" in very basic terms - is it harmful to others or myself? Are there negative consequences that will outweight the benefits? Realizing that I was capable in and of myself to make good choices and be a good human being were the first seeds of true self-esteem building for me.

I look at my children now. I see myself in them, different parts of me in different ones. I see the lack of self-esteem in one child in particular. How could I look at this little human being that I've brought into a harsh world full of harsh messages that will tear her down and try to destroy her and not put intense focus on building her self-esteem? I see the seeds of self-loathing already sprouting, and there's nothing I want more than to choke those seeds out and plant new seeds of self-love in their place. I want to teach my kids to take care of themselves, something I struggle to do myself. I can't imagine anything more important to focus on than a healthy self-esteem that comes from believing they are inherently good and are the masters of the decisions they make. They may make bad choices and do bad things, but that does not make them bad people. 

Not all people of faith believe themselves to be so inherently wicked, but that is the message of the Bible - that the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. That's the bad news that has to be accepted before the good news of Jesus on the cross can be needed. Some people are far better at not internalizing that message as deeply as I did, but I can't take that chance with my own kids. I can see which ones would internalize that message and define themselves by it, the way I did. So I must - it's my responsibility as a parent - fight against not only the messages the world will send my children that they are too much of this or not enough of that, but also the message they are not inherently good. I must put positive self-esteem at the top of things to develop in them, so that they can easily tap into the good they recognize in themselves when choosing between right and wrong. And when they inevitably must forgive themselves for taking the wrong path, their genuine sense of self-worth must be intact. 

*The Black Sheep & the Shepherd by Quiet Company

Sunday, August 06, 2017

The Awesome Stuff I've Done So Far in 2017: Part 2

A few months ago, I declared that the theme of this year would be healing. I have a lot of healing to do in my life, from unpacking the damage my brand of the Christian faith did to me to recovering from my upcoming divorce and redefining who I am as a person. This spring, I ran (aka mostly walked) my first half marathon, and this summer I went on my first backpacking trip. Both of these brought with them significant healing effects, like homeopathy, natural and subtle and hard to evidence, but very real to me. (A little crunchy skeptic humor for you.)

The Awesome Stuff I've Done So Far in 2017
Part 2: Backpacking the Shores Lake Loop
My suddenly becoming an outdoorsy person goes back to at least last year, though really when it comes to camping, I've always been a fan. From camping in my backyard and at campsites with my family as a kid to camping off the side of the side of the road in college with friends (Wes, Chris and Andrew - remember that?) to TMI camping on Merritt Island, FL and in Kilmacolm, Scotland, I love sleeping in a tent outside and sitting around a camp fire and bonding with people who smell just as unshowered as me.

I love Stacy and Chris.
But last year, I became reunited with an old friend from college, Chris. I am so thankful we became reunited for many reasons far more important that this, but Chris and his wife Stacy (whom I'm also so thankful to know) are pretty outdoorsy, which reignited my interest in camping. In March, just weeks after Scott moved out and I was facing the reality of how lonely it is to be single, Chris, Stacy and I planned a camping trip in northwest Arkansas. I was in Tulsa, OK, the week before, and oh what a week that was! Wildfires in the panhandle, a DR Level 2, and was that the week we had a tornado in Fayetteville and a train derailment in Oklahoma City? Anyway, a camping weekend was much needed, but as I drove from sunny Tulsa into Fayetteville, AR, the weather was turning colder and greyer. By the time I arrived at Chris and Stacy's house, the rain had started, and it was cold and everything was started to ice over ... and our camping trip got snowed out. 

So I spent the weekend under an electric blanket inside their cozy, beautiful house, watching the snow fall, being mothered by Stacy and having the most relaxing and healing weekend I'd ever had. I get emotional just remembering that weekend and how it was exactly what my soul needed in that indescribably painful point in my life. 

After that, between the busyness of all our lives and the summer heat encroaching upon us, we never managed to schedule another camping trip. I continued to research camping gear online and create lists and wishlists of things I'd need or want for camping, and through that I became interested in backpacking as well. My gear list was getting long - and expensive!

I went out on a date with a really cool guy who was big into backpacking, and we spent nearly the entire date talking about camping, hiking and backpacking. Nothing ever came of that date relationship-wise, but about a month later as he was planning a backpacking trip, he invited me along. The timing could not have been more providential. I was sliding fast into depression at that point; my new job was overwhelming me, my heart had recently been badly broken (yay rebound relationships), and my single parent responsibilities were crashing in on me. I felt like I was drowning fast. A weekend in the mountains sounded like an ice cream sundae smothered in chocolate syrup and rainbow sprinkles. 

But I had yet to actually purchase any gear off my wishlists, and I'd done zero exercise or training in months. I'm an overachiever though, so when David confirmed the trip was on, I said yes.

I had one week to get a backpack, hiking shoes, a sleeping bag, a hammock, trekking poles, a water bladder, a cook stove and all the other tiny essentials necessary for a weekend in the woods. I spent all week texting David and Chris about which brand of this and which style of that was best, and by the weekend, I was extremely broke but had everything I needed to go backpacking.

Just a few of the essentials.
There were two slight concerns though. Not even setbacks, just concerns. One was that everyone David had invited hiking with him had either backed out or were unavailable. It was going to be just me and him - and we'd only ever met that one time. The other was the weather. Forecasts couldn't decide if it was going to be sunny all weekend or stormy. The chances leaned towards sunny, though, so we decided to take a chance and go for it. Early Saturday morning, July 1st, David and I hit the road and drove two hours to the Ozark mountains for our 13 mile backpack around the White Rock Shores Lake Loop Trail. 

Me and my new backpacking buddy David
The hike started out great. I was immediately grateful I'd taken David's advice on bringing hiking poles! The first few miles were pretty easy. We saw a beautiful waterfall and some really cool campsites. I got to test out my Sawyer water filter and was impressed that the filtered creek water actually tasted pretty good. We spent some of the time talking and a lot of the time in silence, me often lagging ten feet or so behind but thoroughly enjoying the scenery, the sweat and my own thoughts. It's funny how you think you're going to have all of these deep revelations while hiking yet I spent half the time singing in my head, "We're going camping now, we're on our way! We're going to climb up a mountain and run and jump and play!" (Psalty the Singing Songbook anybody?)

Our map promised that mile 6 was full of great campsites. We'd already past some pretty nice ones, so the mile 6 campsites were sure to be fantastic. Our plan was to hike 6.5 miles both days, and with the early start, we guessed we'd be able to set up camp around 4 or 5pm at the latest. That would give us plenty of time to hang our hammocks (both of us had new ones we'd never used before), start a fire, get some food in our bellies and relax for several hours before getting a good night's sleep.

We passed mile marker 5. In a mile, we expected to find somewhere to set up camp. But the next mile marker we saw said 7. The trail we were on had merged with the Ozark Highland Trail, but according to the map the two trails should only have been merged together for a short time. We'd been following the blue flashes but by mile 7, the flashes continued to be both blue and white, signifying the two merged trails. By 7 we should've been getting back to blue only. The map showed all the turns we were taking to be part of the Ozark Highland Trail only. We hiked for another mile before being certain we'd missed the turn off to continue the Shores Lake Loop alone.

I was getting tired. Again, I'd done no training prior except a 4 mile walk with a friend two days before. We'd started our downhill hike and now we were going to have to turn around and go back uphill again. But it was better than getting lost, so we turned back around and hiked back up the hill almost another mile before running into only the second person we'd seen on the trail all day. 

He was doing the Shores Lake Loop also and was getting ready to find camp too. He was pretty sure we had been on the right track, so we turned back around, and the three of us continued back downhill in the same direction we'd been going to find the nearest campsite.

Allen and David
David and Allen (our new hiking friend) chatted together several feet ahead of me, while I struggled to keep up. It was starting to get later than we'd planned, and my exhaustion was starting to show. I slipped and fell a couple of times. (Falling and trying to get back up with a 27 lb backpack on your back sucks.) The mile markers had suddenly gone from 7 to something in the 20s, which must've been marking the Ozark Highland Trail. I had no idea how far we'd gone, but with the back-tracking, we were going on 8 or 9 miles. This was much more than I'd anticipated, but I kept up. Barely.

Then we heard the thunder.

We still had an hour before sundown, and Allen, who'd done the trail before, was certain the campsites were just up ahead. We stopped momentarily to put our rain covers over our packs and put on our headlamps just in case though, and we carried on. The rain came on and the trail grew pretty dark pretty fast. The wet dirt and rocks caused me to slip one more time. I was going to have to get control over my exhaustion!

We expected it to get dark around 7:30-8, but the storm brought on the darkness sooner than we expected. We were all getting pretty concerned about the lack of campsites. It wasn't even that we had to have the comfort of a designated campsite; the woods were so thick and overgrown that it would've been entirely unsafe to set up camp anywhere along the trail at that point. With the darkness, the vegetation, the poison ivy covering every inch of ground beyond the trail, we would've easily gotten lost in seconds if we left the trail to set up camp. David and I had already experienced that earlier in the day, when we walked off the trail less than 15 feet to investigate a campsite and were completely unable to find the trail again. Allen decided to run along ahead of us to see if he could find a campsite. He was running out of water, I was running out of steam, and David kept turning around to me and apologizing profusely for how this was turning out. It was okay though. I was just grateful I had two experienced hikers with me!

Thick vegetation and poison ivy

David and I thought we heard a whistle. It was pitch black and the rain was heavy, and we really hoped it was either Allen alerting us he'd found a campsite or our imaginations, because I really had no idea what we'd do if there was a lost or injured hiker out there somewhere! (Though I did have my first aid kit with me because I'm Red Cross Ready!)  A little ways further, we saw Allen's headlamp. He'd found a campsite! According to GPS, we'd walked 10 miles of the 13 mile trail. It was late by then, somewhere around 8pm.

The rain was heavy and there was no chance of getting camp set up. The three of us decided the best bet was to set up an emergency shelter and wait for the rain to stop. With a tarp, guideline and some tent stakes, we set up a triangular shelter between two trees - not really noticing we'd set it up right over a bunch of uncomfortable big rocks. We three of us huddled under the tarp sitting on rocks with our packs and tried to wait out the storm. We shared out snacks - granola bars, beef jerky, water. The storm wasn't letting up though. In fact it was drawing closer. The lightning and thunder indicated the storm was only a few miles away then right on top of us. The creek nearby was rushing and rising. Rain water was running all around us, creating rivulets and large puddles. I'd been sweating out water all day, but now I had to pee like I'd never had to pee before. 

We discussed just finishing the last three miles of the hike in the rain and going home, but I knew I didn't have the energy left in me. We were also worried about the rain and the slick rocks and what would happen if one of us twisted an ankle or become otherwise injured, and it just didn't seem safe. So we devised a plan.

Allen had a two person tent. David and I had only hammocks. Between the three of us though, we had tarps and para-cord and tent stakes, so we decided to set up Allen's tent, create a lean-to over and beyond the tent and build a shelter that would accommodate the three of us and our three backpacks. In the pitch dark and pouring rain, using only the lights from our headlamps, we build the tent and the lean-to and soon had a very wet but sheltered sleeping quarters. After we'd built our shelter, I told the boys to look the other way and tiptoed only a few feet into the poison ivy to finally pee. I didn't want to get lost, or swept away in the currents, and figured I'd rather take my chances with the poison ivy.

Incidentally, peeing in the woods as a female is way suckier than it is for males. 

We were hungry, but none of us had the energy to stay up any later and cook. So the three of us put our packs on the ground tarp outside the tent under the overheard tarp lean-to and crawled into Allen's two person tent. The three of us, all essentially strangers when you think about it, got very well acquainted very quickly in that small tent. The tent was leaking from the heavy rain and from being assembled in the rain. David and I hadn't brought a change of clothes, so we were soaking wet and shivering in the leaky, cold tent under a single unzipped sleeping bag. (His down sleeping bag wasn't waterproof so we were sharing mine.) Our biggest concern was the creek and the potential for flash flooding. None of us slept very well, but under the circumstances, it's amazing we slept at all.

By the next morning, the rain had stopped. We made breakfast on the cook stove, refilled our water bladders with filtered creek water, dismantled our shelter and cleaned up the campsite. We only had three miles left of the trail. The ground was slick and muddy, and I was extremely glad we hadn't tried to finish the trail during the night.

"Cool Tree Cool"
The last three miles seemed much longer than only three miles. But early in the morning, we finished our hike, and I've never been so relieved to see my car sitting in the parking lot, waiting to take me home. Allen and David seemed to feel the night before had made the whole trip a disaster, but I looked at it as quite the adventure! We'd all gotten a chance to test our survival skills, and now had a story to tell for the rest of our lives! We exchanged Facebook details, and Allen went his way while David and I drove back to Little Rock.

Allen, David and me - we made it!
Despite the rain and the cold and the overexertion of the night before, my first backpacking trip was exactly what my soul needed. My body felt strong and durable, my mind felt refreshed and clear, and my heart felt rejuvenated and light. I felt capable, resourceful (though the resourcefulness was 100% Allen and David) and empowered. Though most of my thoughts during the hours of silence trekking through the mountains were simple, shallow and unimportant, I did have several small epiphanies that helped lift me from that sinking slope into depression. I found strength in myself I didn't know I had, and I fell in love with nature and the outdoors again that weekend.

It's been stiflingly hot ever since, so I haven't been backpacking again yet, but my pack is the corner of my bedroom, cleaned, full and ready for our next adventure together in the woods.


Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The Awesome Stuff I've Done So Far in 2017: Part 1

Since January, my life has pretty much been doing somersaults all the way through the calendar. (How is it August already?) It's been the rockiest year of my life, but in amongst my marriage ending, my job role change and the transition into single motherhood, I've also done a couple of pretty awesome things. I just never got around to blogging about them. So tonight, I bring you The Awesome Stuff I've Done So Far in 2017: Part 1. In the next couple of days I'll bring you Part 2.

Part 1: The Little Rock Half Marathon
Many years ago while working at the High School of Glasgow, I decided I was going to start running, because why not? My coworker Carol and I started running during our lunch breaks. We'd change into workout clothes and run a few miles around the block - or rather, Carol ran a few miles, I ran a few feet, panted heavily, walked a few miles, then ran a few feet again. (Once, we somehow managed to get lost running around the block and were almost an hour late getting back to work. To this day, I'm not sure how that happened.) That eventually tapered off though, perhaps when I got pregnant with Fifi. I can't remember exactly. I only know that it was many years later before I got the notion to run again. This time Jen from church and I decided we were going to train for a 10k. We started out strong, running around Battery Park a couple nights a week. Until the first night it was cold and rainy. And here I'm going to go ahead and make the assumption that this means we only actually ran around Battery Park two or three times tops before encountering a cold and rainy night ... because Scotland.

That was the extent of my running career.

Then last year, my dad, whose enthusiasm for running and cycling is somehow oddly contagious, persuaded me to sign up to run the Little Rock half marathon with him. In fact, it was about this time last year. I figured I had more than enough time to train, so sure, why not? I mentioned it to another friend of mine, and she agreed to register too. Feeling motivated, Elizabeth and I started running together. But not for long. Winter came, and I didn't want to run outside. I ran on the treadmill at the gym, but I didn't do much else in the way of training.

Then Scott and I split up, and training for a half marathon was the furthest thing from my mind.

I had gotten to the point where I could just about do 5 miles before wiping out, so when March came along, I had thoroughly decided against running the race. Elizabeth's training hadn't come along much better; I think she could manage about 6 miles. So the week the runners were supposed to pick up their race packets, Elizabeth and I decided we weren't going to run after all. But since we'd already paid for the t-shirt ... well, we could at least go pick up the packets.

On Thursday, Elizabeth texted me to say she was going to go ahead and do the half marathon after all. She used some fancy mathematics to show that we could totally complete the race within the 4 hour time frame, and, well, math not being my strong suit, she convinced me to go for it too. So on Friday we picked up our packets and on Sunday, having not run in months, I found myself at the starting line of a 13.1 mile race. In the rain.

We started off great. The excitement and the adrenaline kept us going for the first few miles with no worries at all. We paced ourselves well. We cheered when we passed mile markers. We walked some and ran some. (We made sure we were running every time we passed a race photographer.) The rain wasn't going to spoil this for us.

5 miles in, I felt great. 8 miles in we were still going strong. 10 miles in we were still in this thing, though getting tired. Then suddenly ... I felt it. The next 2 miles were tough. My feet were soaked and blisters were forming. I was getting exhausted, but mostly it was my feet. Then that last mile was torture. My feet were killing me. We were really watching our time by then, coming close to the 4 hour cut off. We knew we could make it if we could just keep up the pace, but my feet!

We turned the last corner and could see the finish line about 4 blocks away. Elizabeth and I looked at each other. We had time. We could do this. Let's do this! Determined to run, not walk, across the finish line, we picked up our pace about 2 blocks away and just went for it. We weaved in and out through the walkers in front of us, like we'd been running all along, and with 15 minutes to spare*, we crossed the finish line.

During mile 13, we walked with a man who had been doing the LR half marathon for something like 15 years with his friends. He said the feeling of crossing the finish line is like no other and don't be surprised if you cry.

Yeah, right, why would I cry? But sure enough, as I crossed that finish line, the emotions welled up in me, and my eyes started to tear up. The past three months had been worst of my life. My marriage was a failure, I was barely holding it together as a single mother, and most days the best I could do was pull myself out of bed to show up for work on time. I was so depressed, and all I wanted to do was drive my car off the side of bridge and put an end to it all.

Yet there I was, finishing a half marathon. I have never in my life felt stronger. There is no describing the feeling. It was one of the most empowering moments I've ever experienced.

I'm tearing up right now just remembering it.

Aaaaand then the adrenaline wore off and OH MY GOD, MY FEET.

Elizabeth and I limped to the runners' area where I scarfed down a banana, an applesauce and the best tasting pasta of my entire life. The thought of walking back to the car was unbearable, and the walk actually was unbearable. I drove home, took a hot bath, and napped for several hours, waking up stiff as a board and unable to move from the neck down.

But it was so unbelievably worth it.

So worth it, that I'm signing up again for next year. This time though, I think I'll train first.

*For those who may wonder: The timer in the first picture makes it look like we came in only 6 minutes under time. That was the official clock. I was 20,000-odd people behind the first runners, so my time didn't start until I crossed the starting line.