Good News: You’re Probably Normal

This is Part One of a four-part series: Why Risk Real Relationships. For the last year, I’ve been going through a bit of a complex spiritual crisis that I felt no one around me really understood. And then my senior in high school read two sentences of her AP psychology homework that summed it up perfectly. That was annoying as crap. She’s studying Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages, and was glibly reading them off to us from the upstairs hallway as we got ready for the day. “Liv,” she said to her sister, “our basic conflict is Identity vs. Role Confusion, so our Key Question is, ‘Who am I and where am I going?’” Okay Erik. That sounds right for my teenager. “And Mom, you’re in Middle Adulthood, so your Basic Conflict is Generativity vs. Stagnation and your Key Question is, ‘Will I provide something of real value?’” My first reaction to this declaration was to get back in bed and start stagnating. But in just a few moments, a different sensation began to percolate, something between relief and joy. Generating this new sensation was this simple fact: I am not alone. I am, in fact, a middle-aged woman having a low-grade mid-life crisis. Here’s how the high school worksheet describes what I’m feeling: Adults need to create or nurture something that will outlast them, often by having children or creating a positive change that benefits other people. Success leads to feelings of usefulness and accomplishment, while failure results in shallow involvement in the world. Let me offer a teensy bit of context for you. I’m a 44-year-old woman who has two teenage daughters, one of whom if off to college in six months. I’m a freelance writer and speaker who published her first book at the age of 41, and is trying desperately to get the second one published. I had a hopeful launch to my secondary career as a speaker, and then got benched by a pandemic. And now, as the world begins to reopen (please, Jesus, please), I find myself at a crossroads. Do I keep forging ahead as my own boss, creating content, upping the marketing, and trying to get a message to the world? Or do I go get a “real job” like in an office with a boss. Or do I “quit,” volunteer at my church and finish raising my last baby? Or there’s always stagnation and a shallow involvement with the world. This has all felt very specifically my own unique problem, my own personal angst. And then, Erikson smacked me on the back of the head from his worksheet and reminded me of two important things: 1. Of course I am not alone in being a MIDDLE AGED MOTHER and struggling to justify my existence through creating something of value. When I pause and take a breath, I realize this is the question every single one of my friends is asking herself: Do I still have value? What do I do now? 2. I am right where I am supposed to be. I arrive at this conclusion directly from the conclusion above. I am asking the right questions. And I will find an answer. I believe absolutely nothing will destroy a soul more than the belief that you are alone. What will keep us from despair if we are facing a problem no one else has faced, or is facing? How can we be understood? How will we ever find a solution? And how can we endure? In Alcoholics Anonymous, they have a term for how their members think of themselves before they start working the steps: Terminal Uniqueness. In believing they are unlike anyone else, suffering like no one else, even being victimized by the world like no one else, they have a right to escape into alcohol; there is no other choice. When addicts come into community, they recognize the similarities in their personalities, experiences, and the characteristics of their addiction. This diagnosis provides hope: the problem is experienced by others, predictable, and therefore solvable.

The Bible has a lot to say about our lack of uniqueness, too. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.” God’s way out of temptation and despair is often through the straight-up, bad-donkey power of the Holy Spirit. But it is also through other provisions: Reading the Psalms and Lamentations where the angst of the human heart is given voice. You are not alone. You feel like David and many other of God’s people did 5,000 years ago, give or take. This is good to know. Especially since David is called a “man after God’s own heart.” Being in community. Both Jesus and this mama love a good support group, whether it’s a gathering for sleep-deprived moms of newborns, a Twelve-Step meeting, a grief share group, a marriage small group, or group trauma therapy. Talking to friends is great. But being in a specific community for your specific issue is really great. Getting a diagnosis. I don't necessarily mean a clinical diagnosis, but we can better heal something when we can name it. God bless Erickson and other secular psychologists who study the brain, social trends, and people groups, and give us language for what we are experiencing. There are myriad theories of why we work the way we do, and I’ve found all of them to be a least a little bit helpful in making sense of my inward reality. My favorite Christian thinkers and writers also take neurology and psychology into account, believing that these fields of study reveal God’s designs to us and give valuable insight. The moral of the story for you today, my friends, is that you are not alone either. And though my therapist says “normal is just a setting on a dryer,” it’s essential to know that often we are more typical than we are atypical. I believe that, in thinking we are alone, many of us have cut bait and run from issues that could have been resolved. We may have left marriages that could have been repaired if we had found other couples that have overcome the same struggles. We could have persevered in our chosen professions if we had a mentor that let us know how many times she wanted to quit, too. We could have received counseling, prayer and healing from depression, rather than disengaging from ourselves and our relationships. We would have found more powerful ways to parent if we realized how powerless our peers felt, too. And we could, and can, as middle-aged women (for those of you who are with me, and those of you who will be some day) continued to push through perceived failures and continued to have deep involvement with the world! The beautiful grace of Jesus is that he invites us into the community of the normal, typical, common-to-man fellowship. But at the same time, he lavishes on us individual, precious attention, compassion and grace. And you can bet that we are going to talk more about this later. Next in this Why Risk Real Relationships series, is “Knowing When We’re Not Normal.” This is also essential: when we share our experiences with others and they reflect back to us that we are enduring the unendurable, and we need to stop.

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