Tomorrow, I will blow out thirty-one candles. Every time a new birthday floods in, I feel like a whole new page has to be turned; yet, I am amazed by the wonders that continue to unfold in my life. And just when I think life can’t change anymore, I am surprised by the immense treasures that are hidden both within myself and within creation. As Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman stated, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
Turning thirty felt like an accomplishment in and of itself. I never believed the rumors regarding that fourth decade, but I quickly realized its truth shortly after I hit thirty - it’s a milestone like never before, and one that comes with lots of questions and doubts; but ultimately met with so much grace and peace. Like anyone else, I have those moments periodically where I look back and think, “If only I could grab that sweet young girl I was and hug her and tell her she’s enough simply because He loves her…” But, because I can’t, I am reminded that the greatest gift I can offer to anyone, besides prayer, is my own experience.
The other night, I awoke in the early morning, as I often do by my own thoughts and questions, and asked myself: “What are all the things that we as Christians seek to avoid only to find ourselves in the very midst of?” Thankfully, I wrote down this question quickly rather than falling back to sleep, and sat with it the next morning for a bit. I was reminded of something Jean de La Fontaine once said: “Our destiny is frequently met in the very paths we take to avoid it.”
In this last day of being thirty before I turn the page and co-write the new chapter of my life, I am thankful I get to sort out that question and prayerfully respond.
As Christians, the biggest thing we seek to avoid yet so often find ourselves in is suffering. In fact, most of the time, we will do anything we can to avoid being uncomfortable. And in my own life, I have found three things that have ultimately led to my own suffering, which I thought I could somehow bypass.
Fear. I think fear is one of the greatest things that holds us back from our full potential. In every step of life, there is always a risk. It’s part of the journey of making decisions: the results will not always turn out as expected or desired; sometimes, life is a disappointment, and sometimes, it’s a pleasant surprise. Mother Angelica said, “You want to know the will of God? Do it, and if it works out, it was, and if it doesn’t, it wasn’t.” I remember a friend telling me that before a big move, and I was so nervous to take the risk. But when I look back on my life and think of all the big leaps of faith, the one thing that almost stopped me from not jumping was fear. When you ask yourself the question, “What is it that is keeping me in ‘x’ situation?" and the answer includes fear, you can almost always be sure that it’s time to reevaluate.
Changing jobs, walking away from relationships, moving, setting boundaries, etc. always involve a potential risk, and with that comes some form of potential fear. The question that matters, though, is what you do about the fear. When I think about the times I sought to avoid being afraid rather than embracing my fear and living in spite of it, I recognize that I became paralyzed to any option. Indeed, Pope Francis stated, “Having faith does not mean having no difficulties, but having the strength to face them, knowing we are not alone.”
Loneliness. If I had a dollar for every story I heard (and experienced) of people making decisions based in loneliness, I could officially retire and buy that home I want in Park City. There is something that we as individuals fear about being lonely, and it’s because we were made for relationship and we feel uncomfortable without it. Yet, being alone and being lonely aren’t synonymous. And loneliness doesn’t ultimately exist when our relationship with the Father truly satisfies our human heart. All the times in my life when I made choices based in loneliness or simply to avoid loneliness, I recognize the ultimate despair and harm that I caused both myself and the object of it. Indeed, decisions rooted in loneliness are so often achieved through selfish means. Yet, we were created for so much more than simple use and abuse of others or things to merely quench our desire to not feel lonely. Rather, He calls us to total transformation and surrender to His divine plan that starts with a “yes” to relationship with; an agreement to accept Him as our One and only. He knows what we long for, that we ache for connection with others. But to be able to selflessly love others, we have to love Him who first loved us. “People are made for happiness," said St. John Paul II. "Rightly, then, you thirst for happiness. Christ has the answer to this desire of yours. But he asks you to trust him.”
Impatience. Pride deludes us into thinking that we know more than God and that we can manage it all on our own. But in reality, we lack trust and patience in dealing with life, and so often, we choose to forego His plans for our own. The problem with impatience, though, is that we are not really good at choosing for ourselves consistently. As humans, because we are flawed, we are bound to rush (all too often in the most important areas of our lives), and in doing so, we make a mess out of our lives. Rather, God calls us to surrender and trust in order to be patient so that we can have a life worth living.
“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). When I reminisce on my own impatience, I recognize the simple root: I didn’t trust that God was actively crafting what was in my best interest, and I placed Him on my own timeline. Yes, I sought to avoid waiting; but in doing so, I ended up waiting longer.
As I finish writing this from the back pew of a Church and gaze upon His most perfect face on the cross, I am reminded of His faithfulness and Fatherly correction. He has continued to surprise me throughout the years and loved me in spite of myself.
The greatest memories of my life have been overwhelmed by His grace. The experience of His goodness and loving embrace overshadow any moment of pain caused by my own wretchedness, like a balm to a wound. I am reminded of my littleness beneath His shadow, and I am in awe of the chance to start over again each day.
As a therapist once told me: “The right way to wholeness is made up of fateful detours and wrong turnings.” And while those missed signs and moments of stubborn avoidance have landed me all too often in a pool of my own tears and wicked regrets, I am filled with gratitude, knowing His mercy has continued to lead me home.
"Once a person learns to read the signs of love and thus to believe it, love leads him into the open field wherein he himself can love. If the prodigal son had not believed that the father's love was already waiting for him, he would not have been able to make the journey home - even if his father's love welcomes him in a way he never would have dreamed of. The decisive thing is that the sinner has heard of a love that could be, and really is, there for him; he is not the one who has to bring himself into line with God; God has always already seen in him, the loveless sinner, a beloved child and has looked upon him and conferred dignity upon him in the light of this love.”
-Hans Urs von Balthasar
Betsey Sawyer is an attorney and adjunct professor in Mississippi, and works for Women of Grace as the Mission Advancement Coordinator. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Photo courtesy of Eliza Kennard Photography)