I’m wrapping up my first semester of teaching basic composition at Iowa State. I enjoy teaching, but like most teachers I hate grading. Watching these people begin life on their own and navigate the higher ed system, I keep thinking about how I hope they don’t remember their grade (unless they want to). I hope they remember that they have inherent worth. Writing can make them strong, that’s all. That’s all college is (if you look at the good side of it): an experience that is supposed to make someone stronger, more capable of taking on challenges and asserting themselves in the world of work and ideas. It’s a tool. No tool – not even writing, which I hope they now see as relevant – matters as much as they do as people. Their worth is not measurable, even though this system measures them all the time.
Recipes, Stopwatches, and Scales By Ginnia Kovach
Measure out the sugar and the chocolate chips Measure minutes for the race you run Measure time for boiling eggs, measure the hem of your pants Measure how many earths fit in the sun
Measure miles between your house and Paris or Milan Measure gas to fuel your car or bike Measure emissions, measure waste, measure money spent Measure the costs of what you’re told to like
Measure all you need to measure to live from day to day But no matter what you weigh or watch accrue Remember that no partner, politician, or professor Can quantify the value that’s in you
that everyone else has had or can have a breakdown, that people are fragile. It isn’t just me.
I often wish I was sure about God (who God is, what God wants, if God is really loving, whether or not God is cruel and impossible about things like sex and doubt).
I’m not sure. I’m not sure enough or brave enough or true enough inside to evangelize or “share the gospel” like I used to think I should.
I’m not sure, but Jesus said to people that God sees every sparrow, and if God sees every sparrow, how much more does God see each of us, for we are worth more than sparrows.
There are conversations and articles I have encountered that give me reasons to disregard that, or even find it offensive. How could Jesus say that about a God who doesn’t stop genocides and sex offenders? Was Jesus even God’s Son? Did he even say that? Was he even real? Is it ridiculous to say people are more valuable than birds when we are all life forms and what makes one creature higher up on the hierarchy than others? What about the rest of the Bible and its more restrictive or oppressive passages – what kind of loving God would define sexuality in such a restrictive way or send people to hell (and let’s not forget the questions within those questions too: does God actually do those things according to the rest of the Bible?)
And there are conversations and articles that give me reason to believe that finding comfort in the words of an ancient rabbi (who died at the hands of a merciless mob on purpose) is reasonable…that historical documentation of Jesus’ existence is relatively strong for a religious figure, and that somehow these passages of love undergird and justify and overcome every other thing that makes me want to run from this religion into the arms of something like Art or Science. I don’t think Art and Science are actually as incompatible with religion as many people say…all three are valued and respected in the hearts and minds of many of my friends. But many of my friends see the conflicts between those things, and they find the underlying philosophies of Science more reasonable or the exploratory philosophies of Art more liberating, and sometimes I think they might be right.
But in my experience, the conversations I have had in my religious life have usually been shot through with love, and the love is fierce and it stares right at the darkest parts of me and offers hope and forgiveness. And those are things I am sure I need. Which I guess makes me inclined to believe the conversations and articles and books and sermons that have defended the realness (the spiritual resonance and historicity) of Jesus.
I took these pictures of sunflowers a while ago – it is a research plot at Iowa State we almost drove past one day. I have had a recent poetic obsession with sunflowers, so we stopped.
Most of the other sunflower pictures I have been collecting have been cheerier – sunflowers in the flower shop where I worked, a sunflower growing on my neighbor’s yard. But these seemed haunting to me. They were not grown for their beauty (there’s nothing wrong with that. But they struck me as sad somehow).
At the moment, I am reflecting on what supports my soul when I am aware of my fragility and heartbroken or anxious or ashamed or doubting my worth. I’m always wrestling over these spiritual questions because I want to lean on the comfort I have been told to see in Jesus.
Coming around to the title of this entry, I realized – not for the first time, really, but it usually feels like the first time – that everyone has this capacity for fragility and need for love.
We are like these sunflowers, standing in a plot, unbeautiful and beautiful and interesting and awkward and worthy of careful study.
The sunflowers can’t comfort one another, but they stand side by side.
I can’t comfort my husband or my family or my friends when everything breaks for them and they feel like nothing. This world is awesome at making people feel like nothing if one of the things we think makes us valuable crumbles (work, relationships, ability).
At the end of the day, we all bite the dust – maybe after the world has used us for what it wanted, or maybe by some freak accident where we fall prematurely like this crushed and rotting sunflower I saw on the ground when I walked to the plot:
Life, and people, and religion, and art, and what I know of science all tell me in some way that we are all the same. And religion tells me why we have worth…and all those other things can explain that too, in a way, but I’m reflecting on the spiritual concept of worth. Having more worth than sparrows.
It’s something I return to again and again, this idea of worth.
I know I am using two analogies at the same time, which is usually a bad thing. To clarify, Jesus compared us to sparrows, and He seemed to emphasize the worth of the individual in doing so.
I am comparing us to sunflowers, which are also pretty life forms with short life spans. He was talking about worth. I am too, but I am also talking about solidarity.
My experiences have caused me to lean into the Christian idea of worth – that all humans have the same worth, and God cares about all of them. I’m in a position of cautious faith that this idea of common worth, which is found elsewhere in the Bible, is true. I’m in a position of cautious faith that God actually sees and understands us, and every ounce of pain and confusion and anger at him or society has an answer…and the answer is love. I haven’t settled on the questions that keep challenging that which I mentioned above, but I’m in a position of cautious faith that the questions have answers.
My experiences have caused me to lean into this idea of worth because I realize all the time that everyone else’s self-worth is threatened all the time by many things.
We stand together, fragile, in this fleeting life.
We have these things in common.
I struggle to believe and grasp the foundation for my worth, but I lean into it, and it has something to do with the kindness of the thought that we are more valuable than sparrows.
What I do not struggle with is believing that we are all fragile and need an internal, unshakable foundation for knowing our worth in the face of heartache and failure. I know that is true.
So through faith, I believe we are like Jesus’s sparrows.
Through consistent observation, I know we are helpless sunflowers too.
The haunted sunflowers I photographed were being measured in many ways, I am sure – measured to maximize their worth in some way (yield, strength to withstand bugs and fungi).
I stand with you, my friends, helpless against the way the world measures me too. I stand with you as one who will bite the dust too.
I know I have worth that transcends the measuring…because if this analogy breaks down, I know another one about sparrows that could work.
And if that one breaks down too, I still know we are the same. And for a combination of spiritual or psychological reasons, I want to emphasize my solidarity with you right now.
I wrote the following essay a couple months ago. Somebody told me to share it with others. Perhaps it can help some people come to terms with some things. I am brutally honest here, and fairly personal. But I think it’s true that many in my generation can probably relate.
(I talk a lot about college debt. A few years ago, Bernie Sanders stood on a thousand stages talking about debt. He struck a chord with people like me who are frustrated and mad about it. But for all his empathy, good intentions, and creative policy ideas, he sort of missed one emotion we have about debt: shame.)
I found some hope about some things one morning.
Here is my story.
I woke up this morning at 6:45 a.m. because I needed to pee. This is unimportant – but it isn’t unimportant, really. It abruptly took me out of dream. I don’t remember what I was doing in the dream (other than realizing I had to pee), but this is all important because of what happened when I woke up. Some things came together in my mind that have been struggling slowly under the surface with great weight for years, like tectonic plates moving beneath the waves.
Regret. The earth is full of regret. It is full of greed and rage and lust, and a lot of times we humans let all that accumulate like the CO2 troubling our atmosphere. A lot of times we don’t care, and we go on wreaking havoc on the relationships we have with the people and world around us. But a lot of times we do care.
And that care accumulates too, on our shoulders, in our minds, in our tears, and in the wrinkles between our brows. It is as if this globe we live on is filled with the weight of bad decisions (well, sin, as my religion calls it), and the shame that comes from it adds to that weight. And this little globe we live on is crumbling because of it. And we are crumbling too.
These are broad thoughts. But this is about me, specifically. My bad decisions. My sin. My regret.
Shame has been my constant companion ever since I was a kid. It started with puberty, and all the changes inside me and around me caused a lot of confusion. I became aware of the fact that the sin they talked about at church lived in me, and sometimes that scared me. Sometimes, of course, I didn’t care, and I rebelled, like we all did. But shame started to add up around this time. Just recently, at 32 years old, I learned that I have a kind of OCD that makes me particularly sensitive to shame. So I maybe felt it more than other people did.
Of course, as I became an adult, the opportunities to make bad decisions became endless. And of course, like all of us, I made them. Some of mine are more unique to me, but maybe really we are all the same. We all have what my religion calls “sin.”
For me, I have become burdened by the shame of this sin to the point of breaking. To the point of sleeping so many more hours than I should (another thing to be ashamed of) because I didn’t want to face it. To the point of not liking myself. Hating myself. Wanting to kill myself. I know now that in addition to the OCD, I have bipolar disorder. This makes me particularly sensitive to thoughts like that. Sensitive to shame, sensitive to despair.
(Mental illness: hard).
I have thought so much about what I am ashamed of. I have had countless conversations about it with countless Christian mentors and therapists and psychiatrists and psychologists and patient friends and parents and even the hundreds of people I barely know on Facebook. I have found some peace with these people and their good thoughts (maybe with the exception of some Facebook friends). I have found some peace from some of Scripture…though a lot of Scripture has always scared me. It was the words of these people who interpreted the Scripture through mature eyes that brought me hope. Medication helps too.
But even after all that, my shame has somehow always slipped back behind my back. Again and again it has grasped my shoulders, whispering how I owe $80,000 for my education (which you don’t even use, do you, shame whispers), how I have made certain private sexual choices and had certain impure sexual thoughts, how I have been irresponsible with money, how I have slept so much of my adulthood away, how I haven’t eaten well, haven’t exercised, haven’t been enough of a friend or daughter or sister or global citizen. Shame whispers these things to me every day, and when I am not actively listening to him, I listen all the same in the pathways he has worn out in my brain.
So this morning when I woke up and had to pee, I had this strange moment. I peed, and I washed my hands. And I looked at my groggy self in the mirror. And I went back to bed and for some reason I started to talk to shame in my head. I thought, you know what? I am going to look at you, shame, and we are going to have words. I am going to walk through the swinging doors of the saloon not far from the O.K. Corral and I am going to put my hand on my new gun and I am going to look you in the eye. You are standing far away this time, staring at me with your long stare. Your gun is already pointed at me. And I am drawing mine.
Eighty thousand dollars of college debt. This is one of the biggest sources of shame in my adult life, and it is what I was thinking about this morning for some reason. It’s more, shame says (again and again), than anyone else I know owes. Way more, shame says. Okay, so why? I am asking myself that now. I came up with some things: 1) I lived in the dorms my freshman year. 2) I bought a $1000 mattress my sophomore year. 3) I went to L’Abri during college, spending about $1400 leftover from the loan money I had borrowed that year. 4) I dropped a lot of classes. 5) I took a French minor. 6) I took choir classes. 7) I studied abroad in France. And 8) I ate out too much during this time. Let’s tackle these one by one.
I lived in the dorms my freshman year. Should I regret that? You know what, no. It was a rich experience.
I bought a $1000 mattress. I needed a mattress…so, there’s that.
I went to L’Abri, a Christian Center that reaches out to people with philosophical or existential turmoil (www.labri.org). That was one of the absolute best experiences of my life, and I cannot possibly regret that.
I dropped a lot of classes. Bipolar symptoms (including a full- on psychotic break and debilitating depression) started happening in college. This made it really hard to stay on top of course work and even get out of bed to go to class. Is that my fault? Not that I have a mental illness. I have to take responsibility for those choices, but I also need to acknowledge that I had a disadvantage in this way.
I took a French minor (which meant some more classes). One of the richest and most enjoyable aspects of my education. Should I regret it? No.
I took choir classes. Some of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Should I regret them? No.
I studied abroad. I got the opportunity to learn a beautiful foreign language, look at beautiful art, see the Alps, see Claude Monet’s garden, see Omaha Beach, and learn a little about a different culture, which forever enriched the way I see my own culture and deepened my empathy. Should I regret it? No.
I ate out too much during this time. This one I can admit was irresponsible. I knew I ate out too much when I was doing it, I knew I was spending too much money. But at the same time, having a mental illness really does make it harder for people to keep their lives together. Daily responsibilities can be overwhelming to anyone these days, especially young adults. But if you have a mental illness, it is really overwhelming. So should I regret this? You know what, no!
I thought hard about this. Oh, and one more thing:
In the last nine years since graduation, I haven’t been able to pay much back. I mean, I don’t know, maybe like less than 1% back? But you know what, I haven’t had a full-time, good-paying job. Ever. Is that my fault? Well, I got to the end of my college career in journalism and I knew that I didn’t want to be a journalist anymore. I had already changed my major once (hey, I forgot about that! That’s another one. Do I regret that? No. What kid knows exactly what she wants to do her freshman year? Well, okay, some kids. But it’s pretty normal not to know that). So I decided not to go back and change my major, and I decided to just collect the degree I earned. I had a hard time knowing what to pursue, then, as a career. And truthfully, having a mental illness makes it very difficult to be motivated to pursue new opportunities. And it even makes any job (even part-time ones) harder. So: being unable to pay anything back has made the interest skyrocket. I owe more now than I did when I graduated. A lot more. If I had found and kept a good job, this $80,000 would be less.
Then I was thinking about my good choices. Things to be proud of:
I have always had a job. Even in college. Sometimes two jobs. This is tough for people with mental illnesses.
I gave up having a car after my freshman year, so I didn’t spend money on gas.
As for the other reasons to be ashamed, I can work those out as I go along. I guess I am just realizing that some things I regret just should not be regrets. Sometimes they are things to be proud of. Sometimes they were mistakes or sin, but I can have some understanding for why I stumbled. I have deep sin. But who in my life has ever told me to be ashamed? I have poured out my heart to so many good people, and have they ever told me to be ashamed? Nobody from church. No psychiatrist, no psychologist, no therapist. Every one of those people has pushed me toward grace. So who has it been all along who has preached shame?
I have my gun drawn now, but you are already smaller than I remember, shame. It won’t be long before you are gone.
I realize this morning that for all the things I have truly done wrong, for all the sin, Jesus died for me. He died for those things.
On a rainy March day in 1986, in Appleton, Wisconsin, a baby girl was born. She was red and wrinkly, and she cried. She gave her screams and her warmth to her mother’s arms, and she gave her parents a new human to love. That was all she really needed to give. In a way, though, new and unformed as she was, she had nothing to give the world.
She grew up in a little world, a small-town world, a world with love and pain and ignorance and learning and summer and winter.
As she grew, she learned that she had, in fact, something to give. She could feel it rising in her heart, she could feel it reaching out through her mind, she could feel it reaching through her fingers.
She began to make.
She made necklaces and bracelets, drawings and poems. She found the flowers and the sky and the depth of others’ eyes, and she took them into her soul. Then she made.
Life goes on, you know, even if you haven’t summoned up the strength to make it what you want. She moved in the world that moved faster than her, working for others, working hard sometimes and sometimes not hard enough.
And she made things, still. But sometimes she was too tired to make them.
In her mind, though, a host of characters lived, hovering around the laziness, the dreams, the work, the disappointments, the getting-back-ups. Characters like Mildred Benson, who under the name Carolyn Keene created a spunky, simple character named Nancy Drew, who made a million girls happy. Characters like Mary Engelbreit, an artist who created greeting cards and posters with illustrations of bright children and bowls full of cherries. Characters like Ella Fitzgerald, whose strong, warm song moved the earth. Characters like Betty Smith, who wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a novel so tender it brought this girl to tears…
…and L.M. Montgomery, who created Anne of Green Gables,
Mary Cassatt, who painted impressionist portraits of mothers,
Eva Cassidy, who shared her songbird spirit with the world before her life was cut short,
Emily Dickinson, who wrote a letter to the world no one can forget…
These characters were beautiful for many reasons, but the most beautiful thing about them was that they were real. They were real people, and they worked real hours, and they took real raw materials and created things that had not existed before.
They had to pay their dues, sure, somehow, so maybe they had days that were the equivalent of coming home smelling like espresso with sore knees. They had struggles. But they made things. They made glorious things. Or simple things. Or pretty things. They made them, they shared them, and they changed the world.
I suppose it is probably obvious that the little girl who was born on that rainy day in March was me. I am still paying my dues, recovering from disappointments, brushing myself off from failures or moments of laziness or moments of life being unfair.
Just like when I was a newborn, the fact that I am alive and breathing and capable of giving and receiving love is what matters most in the final analysis. But all of us were made with something to give. We have brains, we have muscles to move with, we have life. As for me, my brain and muscles and life are organized in such a way that I know what I have to give.
I can make things.
I put flowers together, I string beads together, I take pen to paper and draw, I take pen to paper and write.
And I’ll be damned if I give up on making things, sharing them, and changing the world.