Finding Faith at the End of the Line

It was a Sunday morning on a crisp spring day in 1995, and I was standing waist-deep in the cold currents a river in southwestern Virginia. How I got there is the thing.

At the time, I was on cusp of major life transitions. At 25, I had just completed my masters degree in English and was in the midst of determining whether to pursue a Ph.D. As I was deciding whether to turn left or right at the fork in the road, I was rammed from behind. I learned my girlfriend had cheated on me. Not once, but for months.

As the shock gave way, the pain set in like realizing you’ve broken your arm several minutes after a violent collision. The next morning, the muscles in my face hurt from continuous crying. During the first few weeks, I felt paralyzed while waves of questions and doubt pounded me. I could focus only on the small and immediate: do the laundry, wash the dishes, buy milk, take the dog for a walk. Other questions stomped around in my head and demanded attention. Why wasn’t I enough? Why couldn’t she have just ended it? Why? But I could only look away and sweep the kitchen floor. Just do what’s next on the list.

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You can read the rest of the story over at The Mudroom. I’d love to know where you have found faith and renewal.

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Stopping the Stigma

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” Those immortal words from the Greek philosopher Seneca ring true to many who have struggled through depression and suicidal thoughts. The words of those who have been through the struggle can serve as a unifying bond and a bridge back to life for those in stuck in the mire.

We celebrate the brave students at North Carolina State University who have shown us their courage by speaking about their struggles in the hopes of helping others. Here are three of their stories.

The Long Walk

Check out this video about Ashley’s journey. Her first steps led to a locked church door, but it didn’t end there. After years of filling the void in her life with unhealthy relationships, Ashley sought spiritual direction, eventually leading to her involvement with a local Salvation Army Worship Center.

Why Advice Doesn’t Help When We’re Hurting (and What Does)

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we’re listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” ~Karl A. Menninger

I remember my first call like it was yesterday.

I answered the phone, heart beating out of my chest, hand firm on a sheet of local emergency phone numbers.

The voice on the other end was full of… meek embarrassment.

Not exactly what I was expecting.

“Uhh, I’m really sorry… I’m not, uhh… I’m not suicidal…. I just… I just had a huge fight with my girlfriend…. I just… I really need to talk to someone…. Is that okay?”

If you’re like I was before I became a volunteer in 2011, when you think about a suicide hotline you imagine circumstances so traumatic and unbearable that they bring people to consider ending life.

But, I soon discovered that everything I expected to be true—everything from what the callers would be like, all the way up to how I would handle them—was completely wrong.

And what I learned forever changed the way I think about pain.

My First Big Surprise About Pain

I became a volunteer because I wanted to help people who were hurting.

But looking back, I realize that I had a big misconception about what those people would look like.

I imagined two discreet groups: “normal” people living with minor ups and downs in one bucket; and “broken” people struggling with trauma and unrelenting emotional upheaval in the other.

(I had imagined I was in the “broken” category, but that is a story for another day.)

I was sure callers to the hotline would fall into the latter bucket, too.

Which is why I was very surprised when I found myself speaking with “normal” people over and over again, people who I might easily have met behind my local coffee shop counter or in the grocery store aisle.

I began to see that we are all vulnerable to pain so big that we might reach out to an anonymous ear in order to pour out our hearts.

I realized that some of us may struggle with mental illness, but none of us are “broken.” Feeling extreme pain is simply part of the human condition.

But that was just the very beginning of what I was to learn.

What We All Need More Than Anything Is to Be Seen

I thought my work at the hotline was going to be about giving advice. Indeed, I looked forward to it.

I imagined helping callers develop coping techniques.

I pictured using my keen insights to help identify root problems.

I fantasized about offering guidance toward self-transformation.

But, although I didn’t understand at first, all of these things were actually forbidden at the hotline. My role was to be an attentive listener.

That’s it.

This only began to make a little bit of sense when I realized that there was just one thread running through each of the hundreds of stories shared with me by callers: a lack of a trusted confidante.

What each and every caller had in common was a deep craving to share themselves with a caring listener. Our job as volunteers was to offer this.

Okay, that made sense to me. In a world filled with busy, stressed out people, it’s too easy to feel like we don’t really matter to anyone beyond fulfilling our obligations, if at all.

Maybe it was this feeling—the feeling of being invisible—that was bringing so many callers to the brink of despair and onto our phone-lines.

“Mmm, it sounds like you feel…”

This simple string of words was taught to volunteers in order to make callers feel deeply seen and acknowledged.

But are you wondering (as I did) how simple parroting is supposed to do anything substantial?

Didn’t the callers also need help?

Yet I found that callers were indeed substantially moved when they received undivided and caring attention.

Someone might begin a call in a frantic tone of desperation only to end it with a sense of peace and hope, all because a volunteer fully acknowledge their complete being.

Eventually, I even began to see that well-meaning “help” (like advice or personal anecdotes) could actually be damaging.

Telling someone in pain about ideas based on our experiences crowds out what a distressed person really does need—a reflection, pure acknowledgement, to be seen.

We Are All Profoundly Resourceful

Despite callers’ uplifted moods, for a time I was still skeptical about the usefulness of empathetic listening.

But if I am being honest with myself, my problem was that it made me feel unimportant.

If all I was doing was holding up a mirror for callers, how was I supposed to get satisfaction out of my work? Didn’t some of them need my hard-won wisdom?

But I soon noticed something interesting.

Since most callers lacked a sounding board for their deepest feelings—buried anger, forgotten hopes, disappointments—many of them started to lose touch with those feelings until they bubbled over into a catastrophe.

Callers often didn’t even know they were calling the hotline to talk about their uncomfortable feelings.

They called the hotline to talk about tangible problems—major relationship conflicts, getting fired, losing a friend.

I started to notice that it was only after having the chance to speak without interruption for several minutes, receiving only empathetic sounds of understanding and reflection in reply, that they would even begin to unpack the twisted mass of pain in their hearts.

And that’s when I caught a glimpse of the magic beginning to happen.

Once the mirror I offered allowed callers to glimpse hidden corners of their inner worlds, they were empowered to keep exploring.

Soon, they were clearing away cobwebs and dusting off all kinds of rusty tools and insights, all as I sat, phone propped on my shoulder and mouth gaping at the miraculous turnarounds that had virtually nothing to do with me.

The truth was that callers didn’t need to hear about how I fixed my own kinda-similar problem.

They didn’t need to hear about what my friend did in the same situation.

Indeed, hearing my own musings would have interrupted the magic process.

My ego was disappointed at first, but watching someone else regain their footing is immensely more satisfying than patting yourself on the back.

Instead of my wisdom, I begin to take pride in my ability to convey empathy and ask questions, encouraging callers to dig deeper.

I was truly happy to be doing my small part in helping callers tap into their immense personal resources.

Having Our Feelings Validated Is Transcendent

I was thrilled to be witnessing this new power—the power of skilled and empathetic listening. I saw that it was emotionally replenishing for callers and empowered them to calmly analyze their hearts and their worlds.

But there was something else going on, too. Something that seemed almost spiritual.

I felt it, too. When I got off of a call, I sometimes felt a little dizzy, a little euphoric.

But why was I feeling so uplifted by conversations that started because someone had been feeling hopeless and alone?

What I came to realize is that empathetic listening offers a lot more than soothing companionship.

Empathetic listening and acknowledgement also means giving someone the chance to feel like they fit into the order of the world.

It means allowing someone to feel like a puzzle piece slotting perfectly and seamlessly into something bigger than themselves, like they belong. It is truly transcendent.

And since the act of empathizing deeply with another person means becoming one with them for a short time, as a volunteer I was experiencing the transcendence, too.

With every call I felt a part of a bigger whole. I felt connected.

And by the way the callers often thanked us volunteers, sometimes even through tears of relief, I knew they felt connected, too.

Connection is the Ultimate Emotional Pain Pill

Volunteering at the suicide hotline convinced me that listening and connection are so powerful that they can relieve even the deepest pain.

I might have not have found my chance to shine as a skilled sage, but discovering that even the most troubled among us can begin to regain footing was infinitely more satisfying.

“Yes, absolutely, it’s okay.” I said to my first caller. “It sounds like you feel really, really upset. Tell me more about that.”

 

-Katharine’s story
This post was republished with permission from tinybuddha.com. You can find the original post here.

About Katharine

Katharine left psychology research to start helping those of us who feel alone, despite lives filled will people, and would enjoy more emotional connection. Download her FREE LISTENING CRAFT GUIDE—based on the techniques she learned as suicide-hotline volunteer—to learn about how skillful listening can help you do just that.

I Was Blind

If you read the dust jacket of Jeff Grillo’s life, it would read like the story of Job — a life of trial and loss.

Just as Grillo was coming of age at 21, he was diagnosed with two forms of testicular cancer, one of which only had a 10 percent survival rate. He had already been saddled with a degenerative retinal condition that would cause him to become legally blind as a young man. And to top it off, Grillo didn’t have health insurance at the time.

While his amazing story has a happy ending, if you were only to read the dust jacket, you’d miss the more subtle and interesting parts. Life is often what happens between the major plot points.

After getting the news about his cancer diagnosis, Grillo thought his life was over. He sat in his car and started to shake and and punch the door of his car.

“To me, it meant I was going to die,” he said.

But Grillo beat the odds. He escaped the death sentence. He survived the cancer. And you might think he would have seen the proverbial light and embraced the miracle of his new life with an equally positive outlook. But that’s not his story. It was after the scars from his surgery had healed that his life began to fall apart.

“I think I was dealing with a lot of anger issues,” he said. “I wasn’t a person who always handled the disability very well. I just wasn’t a very nice person.”

After his first year of Bible College in Lakeholm, Fla., Grillo had taken a semester off to get married, and that’s when he got the news about his diagnosis.

“I found out a month before my wedding about the cancer, and against everyone’s advice and counseling, we got married anyway,” he said. “Barely a month after, I was going through surgery and chemotherapy.”

Without health insurance, Grillo and his wife quickly amassed six figures of debt. He didn’t have a college degree or a job to provide income to dig his way out. His body eventually healed from the cancer, but his marriage never recovered. After about four years, it ended in divorce.

“It was a horrible scar on my soul,” Grillo said. “Here I was taking a semester off to get married, and now I’m a year plus out of college and can’t see myself going back. I can’t see God using me as a divorced person. How am I ever going to have a ministry? I’m a failure.”

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Jeff Grillo

He eventually went back to college and started taking broadcasting classes. He got a job as a disc jockey on a local radio station and soon became a radio personality in the 19th largest market in the country.

“It was a pretty big achievement in radio, and I had a little bit of an attitude problem,” he said.

At 26, Grillo embraced the lifestyle of a DJ. He began abusing alcohol and smoking pot. He found that having your voice broadcast into someone’s car or home created a level of intimacy that led to other opportunities, as well.

“I realized I had this power on the radio,” he said. “When you are on the radio, the phones light up, and it’s mostly single women calling.”

Those women became another means of distracting him from the anger and pain that he tucked under the sheets, stuffed into a bottle or blew out in a plume of smoke.

“I used the world’s methods to numb the pain,” he said. “I’m a slow learner, so it took awhile. I just couldn’t escape my own condemnation.”

Grillo’s vision continued to decline, and in 1999, he finally had to forfeit his driver’s license — yet another blow for a young man who described himself as “fiercely independent.”

Grillo’s grades also suffered. It took 11 years before he managed to earn his degree. He was caught in a vortex of activities that fed his ego but drained his spirit. 

“Towards the end, I was just so disgusted with myself,” Grillo said. “I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted out, and I didn’t know how. I knew what the answer was, but I just couldn’t quite stop the cycle.”

He found help through a woman who was walking a different path, a path that Grillo wanted to be on, too. For Grillo, her name may as well have been “Grace” because that is what he found. There wasn’t a moment of epiphany, no blinding light. But slowly, he began to get his life back on track, and he began to find strength from the experiences of his life where he had only found shame before.

“It’s pretty neat how God can use my mess to produce his message and testimony for him that actually is having an impact on others and his kingdom.”

Today, Grillo is 46 years old, cancer-free, happily married and has two healthy children who were conceived naturally. His life and his story have fueled his ministry for the last 10 years, during which time he has written two books: The Power in Perseverance and The Excuse Assassin.

Despite having suffered like Job in the Bible, Grillo finds more in common with the story of King David — who despite his weaknesses and many failings was embraced and forgiven as “a man after God’s own heart.”

“We can take huge, massive u-turns and detours because of our decisions, but ultimately in the end, his purposes will be accomplished,’ Grillo said.”My main thing is that you can’t give up. It’s a marathon. You may be limping, dragging yourself across the finish line. But it’s not about who gets across first or who makes the best time. It’s about finishing the race. That’s what we’ve got to do.”

People who have read the dust jacket of Grillo’s life often ask him how he can describe himself as blessed. So, he invites them to take a deeper look into his story.

“When they look at me, they see a blind man; they see my disabilities,” he said. “While I can’t see, I still have vision. Jesus said, ‘Bless those who believe and do not see.’ The truth is, it’s in the suffering that his mercy has been most evident. These experiences may seem like punishments, not blessing — loss of independence with my sight, but they have required me to be more dependent on the unseen.”

–Jeff’s story

You can read more of Jeff Grillo’s story at http://jeffgrillo.com/ or by picking up either of his two books: The Power of Perserverance and The Excuse Assassin.

Interested in sharing your story?

The power of our stories can unlock deep truths about ourselves and our lives; they can release us from the shame we carry and connect us to others who have similar experiences. Tell us about an experience in your life that helped shape your faith. Share your story.

Reclaiming Life, One Day at a Time

Kristoffer Lemmon, who goes by “Stoff,” has a history of success. He was an entrepreneur who owned a string of pizza shops with his (now ex) father-in-law. Today, chatting with him outside of a coffee shop in Durham, I can see why his businesses were so successful. Stoff puts you at ease when you talk to him—he speaks honestly and openly as though he’s known you for a long time. His beard can’t fully conceal his smile (though it tries to at times), and he doles out high five’s when necessary.

He tells me that he’s seen success, but he’s also seen failure—he’s been through a lot. Stoff’s right forearm bears a message that reads: Once I had everything, thought I had nothing. It wasn’t until I had nothing, I realized I had everything.

He points to the tattoo. “This is my life,” he says.

His troubles began with a toothache in 2004, when his wife was soon to give birth to their first child. Stoff took some Vicodin for the pain. Then, tragically, their newborn son died 3 days after birth. Stoff took some Vicodin for that pain too. Suddenly, he found that he was becoming dependent on it.

His marriage eventually fell apart for various reasons, so he sold his portion of the successful restaurant businesses he and his now ex-father-in-law had built. He moved to Scotland for three years and then back to the U.S. to stay with his sister. “I felt like if I just moved, each time things would be different,” he says. But his troubles followed him.

“I admitted to some of my family that I was using [drugs], but I still didn’t have much support at that time,” he says. Then, after an accidental overdose, he wanted to get his life on track. He saw an ad in the paper for a screen printing job where he was living in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. “I met a lot of people who were great support for me, and my life sort of built up; I had purpose again. They were the reasons why I stayed sober for three and a half years.” He started seriously dating a woman there and they got engaged.

During a visit to Durham, he and his fiancee saw that it was a “cool, crunchy town” and they decided to move here.

But after the move, he found that the same supportive community he had in Ohio would take time to rebuild in Durham. The stress of finding and keeping a job in a new city led him to start using again. He overdosed and was arrested for possession of drugs. After a few months, his addiction made it impossible for his fiancee and him to stay together, so they broke up.

“It was a repeat of what happened four years ago, but this time I was really homeless,” he says. But Stoff was not going to give up: “I started to put my faith in the strength that I had.”

Stoff03He reached out to community support systems here in Durham and began partnering with two agencies—Urban Ministries Durham and StepUp Durham. In November, Stoff attended StepUp’s 32-hour Jobs Week training.

“StepUp’s Jobs Week training is a program where you get to see what it’s like not only to be hired but how the people hiring you look at you,” Stoff says. “It gives you a true opportunity to be prepared—not only to go into the interview, but to have support that can prolong the entire job experience.”

But when he tells friends about StepUp, he warns them that it’s not about handouts:

“I don’t think that StepUp is for people who want to get a free ride,” he says. “It’s for people who want to show that they have initiative.”

Within a month of completing StepUp’s training, Stoff secured employment at Measurement Inc. His smile comes out when he talks about his employment: “The job has given me the ability to do stuff for myself that I hadn’t been able to do in a year, like buy shoes and clothes. My first paycheck was on December 18th—the day Star Wars came out—and I’m a big fan, so I went to see it. It was nice to get my own tab instead of having strangers take pity on me.”

Now that he has employment, Stoff has a plan to move out of the housing at Urban Ministries in a couple months. “I’m nervous but I’m excited,” he says of this upcoming transition. “This time I’m prepared to go into the wilderness—I have the tools. I like that there’s been long-term preparation involved and people who are helping me become independent. I’m determined to make it work this time.”

And when I ask him about his long term goals, where he sees himself in 10 years, he tells me that he’d love to start a nonprofit to help others who are going through the kind of struggles he went through.

“I’m really passionate about reclaiming repurposed material and making it into furniture and art,” he says. “When I’m settled I’d really like to start a reclamation therapy center for people going through addiction—addicts who want to get their lives back on track. It would be a live-in workshop, where people live in up-cycled tiny cargo container houses while making reclaimed furniture. I’d love to get some funding together for a program like that.”

But in the meantime, Stoff is reclaiming his own life, one day at a time.

“Things are just really coming together,” he says.

And when I see where he’s come from and the direction he’s headed, I believe him.

 -Stoff’s story
Reposted with permission from StepUp Durham

Story by Amy S. Zimbelman / Photos by Helen Kinser

Amy Spaulding Zimbelman is a Masters of Divinity student at Duke Divinity School and an intern at StepUp.

Helen Kinser is a photographer who serves at StepUp through Johnson (Episcopal) Service Corps.

Part 3: Why Jesus Taught Using Stories

This is the third is a series of posts exploring why Jesus used stories to convey his message and the implications for us. If you missed the previous installments, you can read them here.

Dichotomy of Right & Wrong

Jesus was a rhetorical ninja.  Don’t be fooled by the simple robe and sandals.

In the graphic novel version of the Bible, it would go something like this: a pharisee leaves a group of men talking in hushed tones and approaches Jesus. The tension mounts as the crowd falls silent awaiting the ominous confrontation.

WordfromSponsor_2The religious leader strikes a commanding pose in front of Jesus and reveals his carefully crafted question like pulling a sword from its scabbard in a grand show of strength and intimidation.

Like a scene from the Matrix where the fabric of time is stretched in slow motion sequence, Jesus carefully takes the question turns it inside out and delivers it to the backside of the pharisee in the form of a parable that knocks him to his figurative knees as the thought bubble, “WTF?” appears above his head.

Invariably, the religious leaders of the day attempted to present Jesus with a simple yes/no question designed to corner him into betraying the laws of Moses. Jesus most often turned to story in the form of parables to answer/not answer their questions.

This is the genius of Jesus’ teachings. Unlike the 613 laws of Moses that preceded Jesus, the parables offer a richer, layered, and situational understanding of “the kingdom of God.”

We need laws and structure and moral direction regarding what is right and wrong, but too often we seek to oversimplify truth into narrowly constructed parameters. Sometimes you can break a law and still be found not guilty based on extenuating circumstances. Life is just a bunch of extenuating circumstances explaining how we got to where we are and made the decisions we made. That’s why I relate so well to Mister Rogers, who said, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love if you heard their story.”

This, from the guy whose claim to fame was the question, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” which so perfectly captures the essence of Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.

But we’ve never quite gotten over the influence of the Greeks who came along after Jesus and shaped the way we think about ideas both old and new. Ever since Plato and Aristotle introduced the dualistic paradigm of idea/matter, body/soul, divine/demonic, right/wrong, heaven/hell, we find ourselves constantly falling back into the well worn ruts of those hard and well-formed parameters.

My friend may want to look at parables as simple stories with a moral, but that is not how they were presented. Jesus used parables as rhetorical tools to invite us to bring our perspectives and experiences into the story, to consider the context, the characters and the actions for a richer and more meaningful understanding.

Those stories, as well as our own, deserve to be plumed for their insight, wisdom and truth — the kind that won’t fit on a fortune cookie.