Why People Need Plans

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“Future” by graur razvan ionut

I believe humans thrive on patterns and plans, because we were created for them. When we don’t plan how to spend our time, we open a door for Satan to run amuck in our lives. Like when I went off to college, failed to implement a study schedule, and found myself floundering in all areas of life. (More on that in a minute.)

The Bible says God is not a God of disorder, but of peace (1 Cor. 14:33).

He created a six-day workweek and commanded us to rest on the seventh day (Gen. 2:2, 3; Ex. 20:8-11). Through the example of Jesus, God showed us that it is good to start our day with solitude and prayer (Mark 1:35). Proverbs gives us many principles about using our time wisely, including these:

“Work brings profit, but mere talk leads to poverty”  (14:23, NLT).

[A wife of noble character] “works with eager hands,” “gets up while it is still night,” “provides food for her family,” “sets about her work vigorously,” and “does not eat the bread of idleness” (31:15, NIV).

Indeed, one of the most important lessons we can learn in life, and teach our children, is to use our time wisely.

“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).

Here’s a personal example that shows the dire effects of not having a plan in place.

College Flop

For years before I got to college my home life was falling apart, yet I was able to hold myself together enough to maintain straight A’s and participate in sports, music, and drama. The rhythm of high school and a part-time job and scheduled activities gave me predictability, a pattern to follow. They gave me something to count on when everything else was up in the air.

But when I was loosed on the college scene, with huge chunks of free time gaping at me each day, I fell apart. I needed to set up a study routine, and times to practice my music each day (I was pursuing piano at the time), but instead I found myself sleeping away my afternoons. It didn’t help that I was recently off depression meds.

Before three months of my freshman year had elapsed, I dropped out, suicidal. Now, having routines and schedules may not have fixed my depression, but I think they could have kept me from the drastic actions I took.

The Need for Routines

flylady“Fly Lady” and organizational expert Marla Cilley maintains that routines are lifelines. Before she got super organized, she suffered depression and rock bottom self-esteem.

Now she encourages other women to get up and put on shoes every morning, get dressed, and put makeup on or whatever you do to get ready. Doing these simple actions start your day with intention. Then she gives ideas for routines to houseclean a little every day until it becomes second nature. One of her readers gave a testimonial to this effect (I’m paraphrasing to the best of my memory, as I’ve returned Cilley’s book to my friend):

After my hubby died I wouldn’t have known what to do with myself if I hadn’t had my cleaning routines in place. They gave me something to do. They gave me purpose in my day.

Purpose is key. Setting routines forces us to define a purpose–no matter how lofty or low. It’s possible to have “routines” that don’t buoy us in the long run—TV time, drinking—but those are addictions, not routines, because they control us, we don’t control them.

College Comeback

Flash forward a few years to my third try at college. I was married now, and we lived in married student housing, and my hubby worked nights. I was still covertly battling depression, but the stability of being married to a working man who very much likes his routines finally helped me implement some routines of my own.

My days had structure once again. When I was not in class, I was at work, cashiering or stocking shelves at a nutrition center. In the evenings Buc was gone, so I studied. I had little time for much else. To be sure, I didn’t really have hobbies at that time, and I didn’t really want them. I didn’t enjoy my life then, but I was feeling some stability. And that stability is largely what kept me from self-harm.

This was a better way to live, but still not a good way to live. With those routines during that period, I can truthfully say my purpose was to keep so busy I wouldn’t have time to be actively depressed, or rather, to act on my depression.

The Need for Purpose

Routines with a dismal purpose like this can only last so long. Humans need a better ultimate purpose than “to stay alive because I’m supposed to.” That purpose is to give glory to God.

But it takes time to get there. My journey to this point was slow and painful. It wouldn’t be until two years after completing my college degree that I would actually claim the purpose of glorifying God in my life. And then I would actually take joy in my days. My purpose would become not just to survive the day, but to thrive so that others might see something in me that pointed them to God.

As I wrote my memoir in 2012 and 2013, I had the insight that God gave me stability in my early twenties so I could learn to trust him again. Through the writing of that project, I realized that sometimes it takes having your physical needs met, and perhaps one person you are safe with (for me, my hubby), to free your mind of some temporal concerns so you can seek God.

When we come to that point, or when God enters our lives in a significant way, it’s time to set new routines: routines that are even more life-giving than basic routines that merely keep us moving.

I’ll write more about that in my next post.

My Ugly, Messy Rebirth Story, Part 4

While still in college, like many students, I was forever trying to figure out what career to pursue. But it wasn’t just about figuring out a career: I felt panic at the thought of college ending with nothing waiting for me on the other side. I needed a plan after college, because I still didn’t trust myself with free time. (Having kids was definitely out, because I couldn’t fathom passing along my dysfunction to another generation—much less the responsibility that comes with children.)

Photo Credit: "Reading Outdoors" by Lusi
Photo Credit: “Reading Outdoors” by Lusi

So, during my senior year of college, I spent many mornings at my kitchen table, praying: “God, what do you want of me? Why am I here? Why don’t I feel your peace? When is life going to get better?  And what the hell am I supposed to do when I graduate?”

For all my praying, I didn’t notice any response from God–except for the fact that I got only one job offer: teaching at a rural Texas high school. Feeling insecure and unprepared, I took the job.

Teaching Troubles

Photo Credit: "Young Woman Teacher" at kevinmccullough.townhall.com/blog
Photo Credit: “Young Woman Teacher” at kevinmccullough.townhall.com/blog

Teaching that first year became all about performance. The demands of the job, along with the sassy attitudes of my freshmen, sent me home every day exhausted and on the brink of tears. I lost sleep, I lost weight, and I lost confidence.

I woke early many mornings with knots in my stomach. I remember paging through the Psalms at 4 a.m. looking for comfort, but I never felt comforted. Every day the stress began all over again; I didn’t feel God’s hands guiding. Instead, I only sensed myself fumbling through the dark from August until June.

But somehow, I made it through the first year—and even agreed to come back for a second.

Hindsight and Foresight

During the summer, I couldn’t make much sense of what had gone on the previous year, except that I knew I could not repeat that year again. I resolved to plan ahead as much as I could for year two. There would be no more frantic school nights wondering what to teach the next day; there would be no more “dead” time during class. The students might still act up, but it wouldn’t be for lack of preparedness on my part.

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For more information, visit https://www.stephencovey.com/7habits/7habits.php

In July, my older brother, Kyle, suggested I read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which I did.

A note on my brother: for a few years, I’d been noticing a change in Kyle that had me wanting what he had. When I was twenty-one, I’d first seen it: I’d walked in on him kneeling fervently in prayer—prayer that lasted over thirty minutes—and I’d heard him talk about his new relationship with God. He’d even prayed with me, looked up Bible verses with me, and encouraged me to “give it all to God” so I could find peace. But try as I might, I couldn’t find that dynamic God-relationship he’d found. Maybe I was doing it wrong; maybe I didn’t know how to pray properly. Whatever the case, as I read The Seven Habits, I felt myself come alive: here were concrete steps I could take not only to get my classroom in order, but maybe my life, too.

I began putting the habits to work immediately in my lesson planning: I was being proactive (habit 1) by starting well before the school year began; I was beginning with the end in mind (habit 2) by defining goals I wanted my students to reach by the end of the year. I was so taken with the seven habits, in fact, that I decided to make them my first unit of the school year. I ordered an audio presentation on The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens to play for my students, and I made powerpoints to go along with each segment. By August, I had a three-week unit ready to go, and I was excited for the year to begin.

But one week before it did, crisis hit.

Testing Time

I was notified that back in Minnesota my mom had gone off her bipolar meds and my ten-year-old brother, Caleb, had been put in a group home. To make matters worse, Mom had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was not accepting conventional treatment. Now, there was no way she would seek the medical help she needed—for either malady. In the past when I got this kind of news, I typically retreated to a solitary place and cried until I regained composure–sometimes I was incapacitated for days.

This time, I didn’t have that luxury. Now, I was one-thousand miles away from the problem and had one-hundred students to lead and guide. It was no time to collapse—except to collapse to my knees.

Photo Credit: "Young Woman Praying" from blogs.voices.com
Photo Credit: “Young Woman Praying” from blogs.voices.com

Oh Lord! I prayed. I feel so helpless! What is going to happen to Mom? What’s going to happen to Caleb? Is she going to die? Is he going to be left to foster care, or stuck with his drunk dad? God, I am lost right now. I’m so scared!

Lord, I don’t know what any of us are going to do, especially Caleb. Oh please protect Caleb! Please shield him from this somehow—he shouldn’t have to go through this. But I am not there to save him, and I cannot go to him right now. Oh Lord, HELP!

I cried myself to sleep that night, and when I woke intermittently, my stomach souring each time the reality washed over me, I began praying all over again: Help, Lord, please. Just please…help.

An Answered Prayer

Somehow I began my school year on the right foot. The students were responsive to the seven habits, and I fed off their energy. Six times each day for the first three weeks, I listened to the audio presentation about forming effective habits—and the material bore into me. I learned that it takes about three weeks to form a habit, and at the end of our three-week unit, I realized I’d formed a habit of my own: morning prayer and Bible study.

Driven to my knees by my utter helplessness at fixing the family drama, I was praying like never before. I had also started reading my daily Sabbath school lesson—the study guide put out by the Seventh-day Adventist church—and the Bible. Amidst a backdrop of uncertainty, I took comfort in the routine of reading God’s word in the quiet morning hours. I began talking to him during my commute, telling him my fears and concerns like he was my friend. And now, it was as if he’d opened my mind to concentrate on his truth—and he’d opened my heart to feel his presence.

While everything around me swirled in confusion, the peace that passes understanding filled my heart. I was able to stand in front of my students with a smile, knowing God was with me—knowing I didn’t have to know how things would turn out. All I needed to know was that God was in control.

For the first time in my life, I was surrendering everything to God: my fears, my feelings, and my attempts to control my life. My family’s situation had showed me how very powerless I was—and how my survival, Mom’s survival, and Caleb’s survival, depended on a higher power. If any good was to come of this, I knew it would have to be God’s doing.

In part 5, read what happened to my mom, Caleb, and me, as well as what God taught me about persevering through hardship.

My Ugly, Messy Rebirth Story, Part 3

Photo Credit: "Despair" by Lusi
Photo Credit: “Despair” by Lusi

Read Part 1   Read Part 2

After my family broke up and I stopped going to church, I slipped in and out of depression—sometimes of suicidal proportions. I also started looking for love in all the wrong places. This is where those boyfriends I’m not proud of come in. This period escalated to its worst point the fall after my high school graduation, when I found myself unable to cope with the new structures of college–along with the painful breakups that came with those boys–and promptly made a plan to drop out and kill myself.

The Failed Religious Retreat

In a last-ditch effort to stop the self-harming thoughts that were overwhelming me every day, I accepted an invitation from some upper class Christians to attend a non-denominational weekend revival. Willing to try anything at this point, I even did the suggested three-day fast before the retreat.

But instead of uplifting me, the retreat left me more despondent than ever.

Photo Credit: stuffofwonder.com
Photo Credit: “Worship” at stuffofwonder.com

Here I was, sitting suicidal, in a crowd of Christians with upraised hands who were thanking Jesus for all he had done for them. The speakers were claiming some Bible truths about how God sets us free, how he overturns the lies Satan tells us—lies such as I’m no good; God can’t forgive me; my family has always had a history of mental illness, therefore I will suffer mental illness too, etc. But though I identified with many of the “lies,” I could not denounce them in my life, because they had been truths to me for so long. Whereas these people around me seemed to have come out on the other side of their pain and were now thriving, I was still swimming in it, and I didn’t see a way out. Unfortunately, the speakers didn’t provide one, except to say that Jesus had already set me free.

Clearly, they didn’t know my story.

This was a different type of sermon than I’d been used to hearing growing up. It wasn’t all about doctrine or prophecy—the common fodder for sermons in my religion. It swung the other way: Jesus’ saving grace, Jesus’ free gift. All I had to do was “reach out and accept it,” they said.

Yeah, but how?

How could I do that when I had no goals, no plans, no hope—except for the hope of unconsciousness? And how in the world could one evening of singing, crying, and praying, erase a lifetime of negative thoughts, family dysfunction, and impotent church experiences?

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Photo Credit: “Formal Letter Writing” at http://www.goodletterwriting.com

As college students all around me raised their voices in a frenzy of praise songs and hallelujahs, I became angrier and angrier, and more hopeless. The day I returned from the retreat was the day I drafted my suicide note.

Facing the Truth

I wrote that although I had always “called myself a Christian,” maybe I didn’t even know the real meaning of the word. For the first time in my life, I confronted God, cursing him for letting things get so bad, if he even existed. Finally I asked questions I had avoided my entire life: Where was Jesus in my pain? Where had he been when Mom left and Dad turned volcanic? When we’d found ourselves playing church, all the while imploding? When I’d spent so many nights writing and crying to no one but my journal? When I’d spent days hiding the truth about my “clean, Christian family”? And later, after my family dissolved, where was Jesus in my despair? For that matter, where had he been when the men I’d trusted with my heart betrayed me?

Photo Credit: "Cross--Christian Symbol" by Xmonau
Photo Credit: “Cross–Christian Symbol” by Xmonau

Being reminded that Jesus had died on the cross for my sins only seemed to mock the pain I felt at having been sinned against. So what? I wondered. What did Jesus’ death offer me now, in the moments of my suffering, when I couldn’t muster a reason or a will to live?

After witnessing once again how disconnected Jesus seemed from my life in the here and now, I knew what I had to do. Without a Savior for my suffering, I had no hope but to end it all.

In my memoir I describe at length what happened the night I tried to end it, how I failed, and the sorry state I found myself in four months later, during my discharge from the second of two mental hospitals. Here’s a paragraph from my memoir to sum up:

Now that my plans [for suicide]  had failed, I felt lost. Four months removed from the making those fervid plans, the numbness I felt was strangely akin to that which I’d felt while making them—only without the accompanying peace. After battling hopelessness for so long, there was a calm that came with knowing it would all end soon. But now, without that assurance that life was going to end, I didn’t know how to feel, or what to do, except to concentrate on the immediate steps in front of me.

This is the period where I moved into my own apartment, began hiding away from everyone except people I couldn’t avoid (like coworkers), and began my nasty habit of bulimia. There were nights I almost tried to end it again—I certainly thought about it enough—but the thought of hurting my family was usually the reason I mustered for staying around. I just figured I’d have to deal with the depression, or numb it, for the rest of my life. I resolved to live with the pain, doing whatever I had to do (overeat, cut, offer up my body if it meant not being lonely, write death wishes in my journal) to distract myself from it.

Turning Point?

During this time I was introduced to a nice Texas boy named Buc, who lived a whopping 1,000 miles away. And this is when I came back to church by default. Not to say God wasn’t leading, but that I didn’t really go back by choice.

A few months before I met Buc, I found myself occasionally back at church because my mom was attending again. Then, when my best friend, Samantha, introduced me to Buc and he was a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, and I moved to Texas within four months and we married within another two months, I naturally followed suit. (My memoir has the rest of the details of my move and marriage—the point here is my faith journey.)

If not for these “coincidences,” I’m not sure I would have returned to church.

Photo Credit: Billy.com
Photo Credit: Billy.com

So, I moved to Texas when I was twenty, my husband and I married, and I joined his church. No one there knew about me or my past. Within a few months, they knew about as much of me as my old church in Minnesota had known: that I could play the piano and I seemed to be a high achiever who could write. (At this point, my method of coping with depression became keeping myself so busy I couldn’t think. Hey, I figured it was better than putting a gun to my head.)

These new church members, like my former ones, didn’t know of my persistent depressive/bordering on suicidal thoughts, or my bulimia. Again, plastic smiles became my shield at church. But again, the hypocrisy of it all started to bother me. As a self-professed Christian, I knew something wasn’t quite right. I felt my life should be different from how it was somehow.  So I started doing the only things I knew to do:

I began reading my Bible sometimes, and other religious books. My journal turned into a prayer journal. But oh! When I read back over the prayers! How defeated, how negative! I didn’t realize that true conversion, true Christianity, was not just about directing my words to God (whatever they may be) and logging some Bible time each day. Somehow I’d picked up the idea (at church?) that this was all Christianity was: You have to read some Bible every day, and you have to go to church. You have to take church offices. You really should pray, too, but heck if I knew how. Yes, I was looking for a change in my life, but I’m not sure I was looking for a real spiritual rebirth—an inner re-creation, or makeover—because I just didn’t know this kind of thing was possible.

I was in the church trying my best to be a Christian. But while my fellow church members were telling me what a blessing I was, how glad they were to have me, what a good girl I was—they had no idea how bad I really was on the inside. Of course, it wasn’t the “plotting evil” or “planning sin” kind of bad. Rather, my “badness” was the depressed, forlorn, hopeless, heartsick kind. Mine was not a born-again existence. This was survival mode existence. What would it take for me to finally fall on my knees and give God all my pain and hurt and heartsickness? What would it take for me to finally find that “new life,” or that “rebirth,” the Bible promises? The answer begins in part 4.

Read Part 1   Read Part 2

Reclaiming My Voice

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Photo Credit: Nordic Photos/Super Stock

There’s an important thing in writing called “voice.” Different composition scholars define it in different ways, but basically “voice” refers to the unique qualities of the writer’s writing. What distinguishes his or her writing from everyone else’s?

More often than I wish were the case, college English classes discount voice, sacrificing it to academic conventions, or established norms and guidelines, to maintain the “language of scholarship.”

In my master’s thesis, I argued that I lost interest in my English classes, in part, because my voice was not allowed there. I still got A’s, though, because it was easy for me to imitate what teachers wanted—it was easy to “pose” as someone I was not on paper.

While this practice earned me a 4.0 in my major, sadly, it took me away from defining my own role as a writer, and developing my own voice.

As well, maybe I didn’t feel my voice was welcome, either in the classroom or anywhere else. Looking back, writing in non-academic settings should have been a given…but no…I resisted airing my voice in a professional, outward way—squelched it under the covers of my journals. Where else could it go?

My “voice” as I conceived of it at age twenty-one was that of a depressed, deflated victim—a mental basket case. I felt bad enough about myself already. So why should I let the truth out and ruin the cover I was trying to keep?

How to Hide Your Voice

When you want to hide your voice, and if you have some of your wits about you, it’s easy enough to blend in. Perhaps imitating others—whether in academic writing or behavior—isn’t the natural impulse, but when you want to lie low, it’s easy enough to blend. At least, it’s easy enough to “cap” your real voice.

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On our belated honeymoon trip to San Antonio in 2006.

Maybe I’ve never really “blended” as well as I’d like to think I have. But what I have done is to keep quiet. And by some miraculous twist, I’ve been able to project the image of calm and collected.

Many people have told me, and not just in recent years when I’ve actually achieved some inner peace, that they’re impressed by my outward calm. I’ve been called phlegmatic, composed, serene, and someone who never seems ruffled.

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Sailing in Saint Thomas, 2009.

Well. Ahem. Pat myself on the back. What a “good” job I’ve done at concealing my real self.

Apparently I used to think this was something to be proud of, suppressing my voice.

No more. I’ve grown tired of it.

Letting It Out

I used to stifle my voice because I thought it was warped and would get me labeled. What I didn’t realize was that it was okay to have that voice. It wasn’t okay to keep it forever, of course, because indeed it was warped—a warped outgrowth of my God-given identity.

Now I know my voice just needed redirecting. The form could remain, but the content had to change.

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My husband and me posing for a Christmas picture during the first year of our marriage, 2005.

Sometimes I tell my husband I’ve been trying to figure out who I really am since we married eight years ago. I tell him it’s like my personality was gutted after I went through my deep depression and initial college crash. He tells me I’ve always been the same person—I’ve always had my identity. I guess I have. But it just got buried for awhile in shame and self-doubt.

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My husband and me in a less posed setting in 2005. I think I look somewhat depressed here, or maybe I just need makeup.

No more. Starting with this blog, I’m reclaiming my true voice. And it’s not the voice of the popular majority. It’s not that of a detached literary critic. It’s not a silent observer. It’s not an insecure, defeated little girl.

My voice is thoughtful, emotional, yet hopeful. It is often unpopular. But I’m okay with that. It is mine, given by God, and I intend to use it.

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I’m not sure what to say about this picture. It was taken by my husband when no one else was looking.