Embracing Messy and Complicated

A year ago this week, I began a 3-month Sabbatical.

Even now, 9 months after it’s over I could tear up if you started asking the right questions about the state I was in, what I was feeling at the time, and the healing that happened in me.

Let me name some convergences that have intersected in my life over the past year, starting in Sabbatical and moving forward.

Brene Brown, Rising Strong. Taught me the ideas of “the story I tell myself” and the importance of “rumbling with my story.” So good. So important to my own good mental/spiritual/emotional health.

The Enneagram. I’m fully “in” on this personality tool. I would talk about it all day, every day, if there were people to talk to (hint! hint!). I’m a Type 3: “the Achiever.” That affects how I see everything. And I fall in the heart triad, where I’m always going to be dealing with my feelings about people. That’s just the way it is.

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward. I just re-read this book about spirituality in the second half of life last week. And everything in his book resonates deeply with person I hope to become. (Someday.) (When I grow up.)

We had a small exodus of people who left our church in the months after I returned from Sabbatical. Many of them left without saying goodbye, they just quit coming. Part of me gets it. That’s part of church leadership. People come, and people go. But at another level, it’s caused me to distrust almost all of my relationships. It’s rattled my cage quite a bit – more than I probably am willing to acknowledge most of the time (see my Enneagram Type).

There’s other stuff.. But this isn’t the right place.

The net sum however, of these convergences is that at 42, I’ve really had to lean into the interior journey, to understand myself better. Those of you that are long-time readers, you already know all this. And I’m not broken in the same way I was a year ago, but I’m choosing to stay in the journey – to keep pushing myself to stay curious.

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“There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace, and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.” – Thomas Merton

Frankly, I still feel like I’m kind of a mess some days as I try to sort out how I think and how I feel, how I understand myself and how I discover more of God. And most of the time, no one else but Jennifer knows. She sees me brooding, hears my hurts, listens to my questions-without-real-answers. She patiently  listens as I rumble with my story and reminds me no matter what I feel that she loves me and is committed to me.

But if Merton (and pretty much every other spiritual writer I’ve read) is right, the only pathway forward to wholeness is through a deeper understanding of the self. Even John Calvin said “It is not possible to know God without knowing yourself. It is not possible to know yourself without knowing God.” And so I’ve ventured in some forums to try to say my raw truths. And most of the time, I feel deep levels of regret and embarrassment, what Brene Brown calls the “vulnerability hangover.”

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And then, this afternoon, reflecting on my 1-year-Sabbatical-iversary (it’s Monday as I write this), I read Glennon Doyle Melton’s post “I need to tell you something” on her Momastery blog about her divorce. It’s beautifully written. It is honest and brave and true and sad all at the same time. And then, there was this one line, where she’s writing about why she feels the need to write a post announcing her divorce that caused my to catch my breath:

“I will be messy and complicated – and I will show up anyway.”

Yes.

I know that it freaks out some people when I choose to be messy and complicated. And it probably drives some people away, because we all love our shiny, manicured false images. But here’s my manifesto – and I say this not because I think I’m particularly good at it all the time, but rather, I say it as aspirational – as the person I want to be:

I, Charles, will be messy and complicated and I will show up anyway.

And I will choose messy/complicated because I believe it’s the ONLY way forward to wholeness. I was talking to a friend about this and I said, “to me, the only people who insist they aren’t messy and complicated are the people who might as well wear a sign on their heads that says ‘UN-self-aware.’” We’re ALL messy/complicated, whether we know it or not. I guess I just want to own my messy/complicated and so I can move through it and learn and grow.

So I will choose to be messy/complicated in my marriage, in my parenting, in my leadership, in my relationships. And I will continue to fight my desire to run away, to hide, to sulk and to bury my feelings in ice-cream and whiskey. This doesn’t mean I always need to do this externally, but sometimes it will. (God help me discern the difference!)

Listen, I promise, messy/complicated won’t be a permanent state. Messy/complicated is a place, but you move through it as you rumble with your story, come into new knowledge of yourself and learn new ways of seeing, new ways of being in the world. And it doesn’t mean I’ll be messy/complicated with all of you either. I’m discovering the right times, right places, right people to be messy/complicated with, where I feel safe, affirmed, and then gently pushed.

And I guess, if it makes people uncomfortable, or it makes me less desirable as a pastor, leader or friend, then so be it, because this is the only road to wholeness. It’s the only road on which I will find my true self and thus find God. This road is more important than all the other things. (Again, as I edit, this is more aspirational, but I’m working towards it.)

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But this post isn’t just about me. Mostly, I’m good. I’m not in any kind of crisis or major turmoil. But rather, I’m trying to embrace messy/complicated as a way of life. You move through it, you circle back around, you move through it again. You learn and grow and keep learning. There is no such things as “arriving.”

I’m writing because I want to say to you, “stay in it, show up, embrace your messy/complicated and ‘do the work.’” I’m inviting you to choose messy/complicated because sooner or later life will hand you messy/complicated and either you will prepared for it, or you’ll have to catch up to it when it comes. I’d rather be prepared.

So, today, schedule that coffee with the friend/pastor/therapist/spiritual guide/guru you need to get messy/complicated with. And be brave, my friends. We’re in it together.

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  • Vicky Brown

    Love this post. One of the things I am most excited about as a spiritual director is sitting with someone in their messy/complicated and let them know they are okay…that they are well on their way to knowing God and themselves. It is a beautiful unfolding that is a privilege to watch.

    • I know I’ve told you this before… but that’s one of my favorite things about my job… when I get to sit with other people in their messy/complicated.