linear: never was, never will be

Linear* this post is part of the january synchroblog, a bunch of bloggers writing on the same topic.  this month is being hosted by provoketive magazine and is centered around the theme of hope.  the provoketive link list is at the bottom.  that’s a lot of hope!

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Even before I became a Christian I had the crazy idea embedded inside of me that life was supposed to be pretty clear and easy if you did certain things.  Maybe it was growing up with a single mom who struggled and scraped and believing that “if I got a college education, it wouldn’t be like that” or “If you don’t rock the boat, you can keep everyone happy.” The message of “Do this that and you can get this or that” was engrained in me from early on, and this was long before I became a Christ-follower.  I sort of think it’s human nature.

Once I made the leap toward Jesus in my early adult years, the message was actually more strongly reinforced, only with a little twist of adding “God” to it:   “If you do these things, believe these things, memorize these things, God will _________.”

Really, this kind of thinking makes an assumption that life is supposed to look like this:

It’s ladder-like living where we keep moving forward and don’t look back.  One rung after another after another, somehow expected to forget what’s behind us and keep pressing forward to what’s ahead. With enough faith, forgiveness, prayer, and fortitude, we’ll keep rising higher and higher and getting better and better.   It’s formulaic and if you just do the right things, the right things will come together.

Yeah, it didn’t work so well for me.  As much as I secretly long for “linear” my life was anything but.  In fact, my life has always felt a lot more like this:

Look familiar?

About 16 years ago I heard a very wise woman named Jan Frank speak at a women’s retreat.  I have no idea what she’s doing these days, but I will always remember this imagery.  She shared that even though we long for life to be linear, and to be healed quickly from things in the past or negative messages about ourselves, it just doesn’t work that way.  Rather, over the course of our lives we will continually hit our “stuff” over and over again, but each time at a new place. 

The model she shared looked like this:

The spiral is bringing me hope right now.  Sometimes longing and hoping and wishing and begging for life to be linear can be so frustrating.   I don’t want to still be saddled with the same messages I have struggled with for years. The ones that all-roads-lead-to for me are “I’m not enough” and “I’m really on my own.”  As much healing work as God has done with them, as much as I know they are not true, as much as I can put them in their proper place, they still show up in my heart and my head and relationships.  Meanwhile, I keep consciously and unconsciously expecting them to be done, in the past, and happily moving up the next rung of the ladder.

But I am reminded, yet again, as this new year begins that life is so not linear.  It never was and it never will be.  I am going to hit my woundedness again, and again, and again over the course of my life, but each time at a little different place.  Instead of expecting the messes to be gone and being angry at myself and God for not taking care of it as quickly as I’d like, I am learning to lean into God’s ongoing transformation in my life.   I will continually bump into these core messages, especially during times of trial and challenge, and each time God will work to heal and restore yet another layer that needs tending to.

Linear expectations of ourselves, of God, of other people tend to lead to shame, self-hatred, and anger.   I think a lot of our church experiences have subtly and directly taught us that linear living was possible.  In this model, we always fall short and end up feeling bad about ourselves.  It eventually leads to hopelessness.

Thinking that life is just a chaotic, crazy roller coaster ride with no rhyme or reason to it isn’t very hopeful, either.

Accepting the spiral-ness of life leads to freedom, hope, and peace.  It lets God off the hook and helps us notice “Yep, there it is again, rearing its ugly little head, trying to teach me something” instead of being royally ticked that we’re still struggling.   This infuses me with hope.

Hope that I’m not a total screw-up.
Hope that there’s a bigger story unfolding.
Hope that God is always at work, transforming, rebuilding, renewing, restoring.
No matter how many times I hit the same stuff.

Hope is remembering that every time I bump up against my weaknesses and painful parts of my story, it is at a new place, there to teach me something really good about what it means to be human in need of God’s help and hope in a messy, broken world.

Yeah, life is not linear.  Never was and never will be.

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more hope here:

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

15 Comments

  • Kathy,
    Desmond Tutu shared this quote in one of his books: God writes straight with / using crooked lines. I have always loved that thought – only God has true linear latitude. And even His straight lines incorporate slants, crooked lines and spirals! Maybe His idea of straight / linear is much more nuanced, complex, multi-dimentional than our ability to conceptualize, this side of eternity. Maybe the only linear movement is really transformational, which may not be a direction on a compass or timeline like we sketch out for ourselves.

    Love your images and reflections on spirals upward on the journey of transformation. Love that this indicates hope – not hopelessness.

    Reply
    • thanks kelly, i hadn’t heard that desmond tutu quote and that is so good. i think that’s what it is, really–us sort of making what’s not linear try to be linear. thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  • Kathy,

    What a great post. I think the spiral analogy really hits it on the head. This whole thing has really hit me as I’ve hit adulthood. If you get a degree, you’ll get a job, once you get married, you get a house and mortgage, once you get those you have a kid, etc.

    And frankly, I have to work hard every day to keep my house from being my husband and I’s bachelor pad. Adulthood and responsibility don’t just magic appear and you don’t just “level up” every time to take on something new. Or, if you do level up, it’s not like you can never go back to lagging behind or being childish sometimes.

    This is a great thing for me to remember about things that have happened in the past too. As I look back at stuff, I realize that it’s hurting less than it was last year. And waiting sucks, but it’s very promising that as the planet swiftly tilts, that things are going to be a little bit more okay. New things will come, old things will fade, and we’ll just keep plugging along.

    Reply
    • thanks, deanna. it’s so wise that you are learning some of this now instead of later because i think it will save a lot of heartache. embracing non-linearity in a world that screams for clarity/formulas/do-this-and-that-will-happens is pretty tricky but oh so freeing, too. i can really relate to what you said about past things. every year certain things fade, they still hurt, they still hit those painful places but without as much power anymore. thanks for sharing; i haven’t been able to make it through all the posts yet but hope to this week…

      Reply
  • Your second picture of squiggly lines is good. Yes, we do keep bumping up against our stuff. Then again, we really can be more than the sum total of our stuff.

    When something bad happens to me, sometimes I slide back into thinking “I must have done something bad, some sin, so God is letting this happen to me”. Oh, how I regret the times that was taught to me in church! I vividly remember one story where the woman was seriously injured in an accident and decided it must be because she and her boyfriend had gone a bit too far. I hope that God is way too big, and His grace way too encompassing, to be that kind of God.

    Reply
    • yeah, i know what you mean. that dumb reflex is still there even though i know better! it gets in pretty deep, that twisted stuff about God and how doing this equals that. i know when i hurt my back i had to resist every part of that message and it didn’t help too much when people said “maybe God is trying to teach you something….” yeah, by breaking my back. hmmm, that doesn’t feel too good.

      Reply
  • “Accepting the spiral-ness of life leads to freedom, hope, and peace. It lets God off the hook and helps us notice “Yep, there it is again, rearing its ugly little head, trying to teach me something” instead of being royally ticked that we’re still struggling.”

    oh i love this. and need this. beautiful.

    Reply
  • Thanks, Kath! “Hope is remembering that every time I bump up against my weaknesses and painful parts of my story, it is at a new place, there to teach me something really good about what it means to be human in need of God’s help and hope in a messy, broken world.”

    Reply
    • thanks, dan. lots of learning going on, that’s for sure. i think that’s why friendships are important, too, because they are vehicles to bump up against our stuff and open our hearts to God’s healing.

      Reply
  • “longing and hoping and wishing and begging for life to be linear can be so frustrating.” *nodding furiously* Oh this non-linear piece of the journey is the biggest stumbling block in my journey.

    But, for today ;), I can hold on to the hope that the more intention that I put into my healing, the less of a hold neglect issues can have a hold on me. So glad that I don’t have to live under the banner of false expectations any longer. That the spiral is learning and growth and real life. Aaand, that I am starting to recognize when I find false shelter under them is hope.

    Reply
    • yeah, it’s tough when absolutely everything that gets taught in so much of western thinking/evangelical christianity/our-basic-tendency-to-want-it-to-be-easier is embedded in us so deeply. making this shift can be so healing and hopeful because it helps us be so less hard on ourselves and instead of being pissed off “there it is again, what’s wrong with me, why do i suck so bad?” it is “oh, there you are again, can’t say i’m glad to see you but i do understand why you’re here…” it reminds me of that rumi poem of welcoming pain to the table as guests.

      Reply
  • Kathy- Your words and pictures made me think of the Natasha Bedinfield song *Unwritten* Especially this lyric- *we’ve been conditioned to not make mistakes but i can’t live that way* 😀 I wonder where this expectation of linear comes from if no one is experiencing it??? I am reading Philip Yanceys book *soul survivor* sharing stories of the lives of various influential people in history as they relate their lives to faith. A key theme among all of them is the disconnect over and over between theory and practice. Gandhi and Tolstoy are 2 of the people Yancey focues on, both of them sought to go to extreme lengths to live authentically, yet they both found no matter how hard they tried their living never could fully match their ideal how they believed they should live. letting God off the hook for me also means Him letting me off the hook, love and grace as opposed to judgment and disappointment when I am NOT linear!!!

    Great stuff sweet friend!!!

    Reply
    • i’ve never read that book but i have heard about it. he is a a colorado guy! i really like that line, too. i need to listen to that song again. somewhere along the line that linear storyline thing got stuck in us and much of our healing and transformation depends on letting go of it and embracing a more honest, curvy way of living where God is always at work, and we’re always participating in healing the deepest messages of our lives. thanks for sharing, my friend from afar.

      Reply

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