Thursday, September 9, 2010

Out of the cocoon

I've been drawn toward the forgotten ones, the "undesirables," toward suffering, since I was a little girl. I grew up around it, to some degree, being the daughter of a pastor with a very big heart. I tagged along with my Papa to visit elderly people in nursing homes, to befriend families in low income housing and bring them gifts, and I watched my parents care for strangers going through hard times whom we'd offer a place to rest for a night or a month. I watched them counsel and mentor people so naturally, with compassion, and I wanted to be like them.

Going through school, though, I didn't have a clear idea what I wanted to do for work someday. I dabbled in it all. Paramedic, firefighter, physical therapist, nurse, vet, animal trainer at Sea World, writer, actress, chaplain, social worker, counselor. I just couldn't find the fit I wanted. So finally, in my college years, I decided on counselor. I loved my psychology classes and felt I was groomed to be a counselor from my childhood. Throughout college, though, I never felt a passion for counseling. It simply felt inevitable.

I began to question this inevitability toward the end of college when I was introduced to the world of refugees through an internship at World Relief. What good were my Western counseling techniques among people from such different cultures, I wondered? After a year of social work experience, however, I knew that was not the best fit for me, either. It took me three years after graduating from college to convince myself I wanted to go to grad school and get my MA in counseling to work with refugees. My goal: to be in Africa, preferably in a refugee camp, offering mental health services to people who'd experienced extreme trauma.

I began grad school fueled with a passion and energy I never felt in college. It only took one quarter of grad school to know deep down in my knower that I wasn't destined to be a clinical counselor. I just didn't see it; didn't even want it. But strangely, I had no doubts I was to continue with the program, with the exception of a brief period when I wondered if I should have been in law school instead. I'll use my degree creatively, I thought. I'll still go overseas, this will be my ticket there. So I worked hard, with great passion, and finished my program at the top of my class, destined for greatness.

And then everything toppled. My dad's death came at a time when I was on the precipice of embarking on a new journey, but nothing was settled at the time; therefore, everything crumbled. I don't view this as a bad thing. I think these changes needed to happen. Yet it's been a continual challenge rebuilding from the ground up when I'm quickly approaching my thirties. This wasn't in my plans, for sure, as things like these never are.

As I've gained more distance from my dad's death and the great toppling that occurred, and as I've grown and experienced healing and learned more about myself, I've often been perplexed by my lack of desire to be a counselor. It's like my dad's death broke a box around me that needed to be broken. And while I don't have the desire to crawl back into that box and reconstruct it, it can be a little uncomfortable not having those walls around you at times. Having a structure you can point to when people ask what you're doing with your life. I have to have the faith now to believe that the structure being built out of my life is not necessarily one that is visible, as much as below the surface.

When I'm not feeling anxious about all these changes, I feel almost like a butterfly that's fighting her way out of a cocoon. Beating my wings, struggling to get out completely and finally be free to fly.

What I'm learning about myself is that, while I'm drawn to the forgotten, the marginalized, the suffering, I don't necessarily want to be immersed in it day in and day out. Counseling has never been life-giving to me, it's just something I can do well because I care about people. Relating to people and their suffering through writing and photography and the arts is life-giving to me. It allows me to experience people's stories, up close and from a distance. And it allows me to discover the beauty and hope in the process of suffering and the challenges of life, more so than counseling ever did. I feel free to be expressive and creative in these contexts when I'm not in the role of counselor. I guess it's a box I was never meant to be in.

That still doesn't leave me with the answers I so often desire. But I came across these verses the other day while I was reading a letter the apostle Peter wrote to the early churches:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:6-7).

I'm finding it requires humility and the casting off of my anxiety, to let go of my need to measure success or my worth by the world's standards. To let go of that pride, once more. To trust that God is building a foundation and a structure on that foundation that is not for my glory, but for his. And he never abandons his work. He builds things that are beautiful. And I may not see that very clearly, but I can simply believe him, that he continues to do beautiful work in my life because that's the kind of God he is. Sometimes I just need to be reminded, it's not about me. But I'm thankful for the ways he is showing me, as I'm fighting my way out of this cocoon, who he's created me to be. And it's different than I thought.

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