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It Didn't Use to Be Like This by Ben Sanders

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It Didn't Use to Be Like This by Ben Sanders

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


“It didn't used to be like this. I didn't used to be like this…”

It's the mantra that swirls in my mind when I'm having an anxiety attack. My neck lights up bright red and my brain starts shutting down. I feel my heart rate increasing and no matter what breathing techniques I try, I can't slow it back down. I'm so aware of it happening that I start grasping for things to say, questions to ask the people in front of me, anything at all so I can have a normal reaction with whoever is in front of me… but when it comes time to speak, my brain and my mouth aren't aligned, and even worse, my body is in a state near panic.

I didn't used to be like this.

Over the past decade I underwent the most dramatic internal growth spurt of my life. I was confident, funny, authentic, compassionate and didn't have to try so hard. I started my own video production agency, had great friends, great community, a wonderful wife, and eventually we started popping out wonderful children.

Once the kids entered the scene we were having the time of our lives in new ways, though those amazing times were also mixed in with some of the most heightened stressful times as well. Like when our oldest dropped off the weight chart entirely and we fought our gastrointestinal specialist on finding a different solution to weight gain than poking a hole in his stomach. The threat was that they would report us to CPS if we didn't comply with the only option the specialist suggested, even though we thought there was a less invasive alternative. They finally recommended a nutritionist instead, which helped get our boy back on the charts.

We had never experienced stress like this before, but even so, I handled it with relative ease.

Fast forward a couple babies later and the desire had grown to move back “home” to California. Some loss in the family sparked a renewed desire for our kids to live near their grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. We loved our families deeply but until then hadn't experienced a strong desire to live nearby.

We made plans and moved quickly because… well, because I don't have much patience when my mind is made up, but beyond that, if we didn't move quick, our preschooler would spend another year making friends at preschool, our roots would deepen even more, and uprooting ourselves would be even more painful. So the time was now.

We sold most of what we owned and moved across the country. Our family was loving and supportive, allowing the 5 of us to stay with them as we looked for a place to live.

We eventually got on our feet, but in the time being, some major shifts had happened in my video production business. I thought I was going to keep my Indiana office open while building a new California office, but the Indiana office quickly went into the red and unfortunately we had to shut it down. Everything now relied on swiftly and successfully starting up well in California. Welcome to the Bay Area.

It's in this season, with a combination of factors and stressors, that performance-based acceptance fired up in me in a big way, and with it came anxiety for the first time in my life (or at least the first time I was aware of it).

Performance-based acceptance lead me out of authenticity and into performing for approval. That meant it was rare for me to be living true to myself, and more common for me to be analyzing situations to figure out how I was supposed to behave. It was subconscious. It was automatic. It was new. Or was it?

I was in the thick of it. Life felt new in a bad way. I felt like I had entirely lost my previous decade of growth. I felt like I had no purpose except to exist and provide for my family. I felt confused and wandering and doubted my everything. I felt, most of all, shame about the totality of my being, and I couldn't even name why.

“I didn't used to be like this” swirled through my mind enough times to seek help.  My counselor helped me recognize what was happening within me and start tracing back the insecurity and anxiety I was feeling to their roots. I'm still unpacking that. 

So how do you keep moving when your internal world comes crashing down? Well, for me, I had to listen a lot. Deep within my soul, if I listened well, I noticed God speaking in ways that I've not often recognized as His/Her/Its voice. If I'm honest, I have to admit that I wish God would just text me. I would totally text back and we would be buds, even if God occasionally said something I didn't want to hear. But unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) that's not how God works.

I think God speaks to us all differently. I've heard people say that God speaks to them through the Bible. Not me. I've heard people say that God speaks to them when they pray. Not me.

I hear God when I simply shut the hell up.

But then I started learning that that was my new way to pray. Rather than trying to lead the charge with words that I say to God, I enter a space ready to listen. And when I do, God speaks. And when I hear, I try to continue the conversation in that direction. 

Sounds crazy right? Yeah, me too. But it's real, and that's saying something for a guy who has as many doubts about God as I do. But the more I listen, the less I doubt, because I hear and even more strangely, I see. I can't explain how God shows me my path forward, but the way forward becomes so vividly lit up that I've recognized this sense as a power beyond myself.

There are two new mantras playing in my head this year after being seared into my soul in a number of ways:

“Open yourself up to that which is beyond you.”

AND:

“God is out ahead of us, preparing the way for us.”

May it be true, and may I take the time to listen for the way.


Practice:

It's hard for me to recommend practices when I haven't mastered steady practice in my own life… but if you were to take a look at my business notebook you would notice that my business notes have been overtaken by personal journaling and messages I've heard from God. If you were to step into my bedroom, you would notice that my poor wife has to put up with a giant whiteboard that I hung on the wall to capture more of the soul messages I'm receiving. I also put my questions on that board, and jot down poems and stories I receive as well. 

So if I were to encourage you to do anything, it would be first, to listen. Listen for longer than you're used to. See how long you can listen for… 

My second recommendation would be to write.

It could be a word.

It could be a phrase.

It could be a story.

It could be your future.

It could be confusing.

Who cares. Just write.

One time I booked a conference room at work, closed the door, and wrote down every life event I could remember on a whiteboard. I found moments of my life that needed to be lamented, and I took some time for that. Other times I've hiked to a spot in nature, pulled my journal out and realized I have nothing to write. Then I accidentally listened, and eventually words flowed and new insights poured out. 

I can't explain it, but I know I need to keep listening and writing. Maybe it could help you, too. 


Ben is a husband, dad, and video productionist in the East Bay of San Francisco. When he's not losing wrestling matches at home with his 6, 4, and 2 year olds, Ben creates videos that help people #thinkfeelactnotice. In high-school Ben had a 32 inch vertical leap; now he struggles to roll out of bed. 

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This Is My Body by Mariah Lefeber

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This Is My Body by Mariah Lefeber

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This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


I grew up in Nebraska, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a music teacher. When I was a little girl, like many of us, I took the world I grew up in for granted – unaware that my life might be different from anyone else’s. It was only as I got older, and especially after leaving home, I began to appreciate this churched, midwestern world that was my early existence. I also began to examine and understand the emphasis and sacredness on liturgy and ritual that defined my own religious upbringing. 

As I started thinking about writing this post, I realized that my message was set to be released during Holy Week, on Maundy Thursday nonetheless. This felt so fitting, with the Lenten season of the church year overflowing with the sacredness of ritual. I thought about growing up celebrating Palm Sunday with the waving of cool, real palm branches, practicing the Passover Sedar, and my father’s heavy Bible slamming to signify the solemn end of the Good Friday service. And above all, I thought about communion – during Holy Week and every Sunday – with the reminder always echoing in my ears: this is my body, broken for you, do this in remembrance of me.

With the workings of the church woven into my very being, my own journey has also been one of creativity – and specifically – of dance. Pursuing my love for this art form, and in the midst of working towards my undergraduate degree in dance, my father was diagnosed with cancer. Many years later, I still don’t have the words to sufficiently describe the pain of his three year battle, of horrors that a hardly twenty something (let alone anyone) should never have to endure. Even now I struggle to grasp all that cancer stole from me, but because I didn’t know // couldn’t know how to press on without it – all throughout the chemo treatments and the surgeries and the pain pumps – I kept dancing. My own creative practice held and grounded me during that season, as it has in difficult seasons since, in a way that I came to understand only in retrospect.

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Just two months after my father’s funeral, I moved to Chicago to pursue the studies in dance/movement therapy I had deferred a year prior. During this pivotal time, drowning in grief and drinking from the fire hose of graduate coursework, I realized that at some point I was going to have to integrate my journey of faith with my world as a dancer. Unfortunately, the words of John Gordon Davies (1984), rang far too true in my own life: In Western culture, relatedness, whether to God or interhuman, has been conceived and practiced in terms mainly of the spoken word. Acknowledging that we are communicating beings, stress has been laid on verbal communication. From this has stemmed an undervaluation of the bodily aspect of the dialogue.  

The church, while steeped in deeply rich traditions of many kinds, hasn’t always done a great job of reminding us of the holiness of the incarnate experience – whether our own bodily and physical experiences, or God’s desire to enter the incarnate experience through Jesus’ life and death. Jesus reminds us – this is my body, broken for you – do this in remembrance of me. Once I was able to recognize and honor the sacredness of the incarnate experience (even amidst its brokenness and suffering) in my faith, I was able to fully understand how the practice of dance allows me to feel more connected to myself, to the world, and to God.

Much like the church I grew up in, the culture of dance is thick with rituals. A culture that is home to me, I forget at times that my willingness to be barefoot anywhere or my proclivity to hug or touch even strangers makes me a bit of a foreigner in the other worlds I inhabit. Yet the truth is that the marley floors of the dance studios of my life are just as much church to me as the sanctuaries where I’ve received communion. My body laid out in a giant X shape across the cool floor, I’ve surrendered my weight into the ground below me, trusting it will support me and hold me up – again and again. The ritual of dance class, of turning off the racing chatter in my brain in order to let my body take over and just be in the present moment, has reminded me repeatedly of the beauty of the incarnate experience. 

I know that for me, personally, great healing happens when I enter the sacred space of the dance studio. I’ve also learned in my work as a dance/movement therapist about the uniqueness and relative nature of each of our personal journeys. Our embodied experiences and needs are vast and varied. Sometimes we don’t have the luxury to practice that which our body wants or cries out for; even knowing what that might be is in itself a luxury. Yet, a practice that sustains me, and that I hope can do the same for others, has the potential for simplicity. I’ll break it down like this:

  1. Know that your incarnate experience matters. Yes, your thoughts and your mind matter – but equally sacred is your bodily, felt, lived experience. 
  2. Listen to your body. Your body is very wise. Take a minute every day to be still and to listen. Inhale and exhale slowly a few times. What do you notice in your body? When you think back to that meeting at work, that important phone call, or that argument at home – can you remember what you experienced in your body? Where you felt something? What are the messages your body is sending you right now?
  3. Respond to you body. Turn on your favorite song and dance it out. Take a run and pound into the pavement with every ounce of strength you can muster. Lie on the floor in a big X shape or curl up in a ball and let the tears flow as they may. Trust that the ground below is there to hold you up, and that God is too.

The beginning of the Lenten season always brings forth memories of the yearly imposition of ashes – the ritual of my father marking the ashen cross on my forehead and reminding me, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. There is great freedom in recognizing the impermanence of our broken, earthly existences – and great beauty in embracing them in the meantime – the messy, holy, incarnate experience that is being in our bodies for today. May you find the freedom to dance in the interlude.


Mariah LeFeber is a dance/movement therapist and counselor who lives in Portland, Oregon, where she has killer living room dance parties with her husband Paul and their two daughters, Adah and Junia. You can learn more about her at mariahlefeber.com or find her on Instagram @mariahdancing

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