Living on Purpose: Life as a Choose Your Own Adventure Story

As a child, some of my favorite books to read were from the Give Yourself Goosebumps choose your own adventure series written by R.L. Stein. Throughout each book, there were several opportunities for the reader to exert some agency. If you wanted your character to walk through a door, you’d turn to page 78. And if you wanted the character to turn and run, you’d turn to page 52. Depending on the series of choices you made, the story could be slightly or drastically different every time you read it. I loved those books and others like them because it drew me into the process, begged me to be an active participant rather than just a consumer. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the choose your own adventure concept would be a perfect metaphor for navigating life. We can either be passive consumers of our experiences or we can actively shape the story.

Every day we make hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tiny and massive decisions that shape our own story. Turn here, eat this, accept that job offer. Each one has the potential to lead us down a slightly different path. Here’s the catch….in life, we already know the end of our story. We all meet the same ending so the question becomes, what do we want to do along the journey? We cannot always control the outcome of our decisions, and much like the choose your own adventure books, sometimes life throws us an unexpected twist, but we can live with intention, with an idea of what we’d like to experience on the way, and we can control how we react to those unexpected twists.

Living with intention simply means doing big and small things on purpose, with purpose. Here are a few things I do to make sure my own adventure is lived with intention:

  • Every morning I try to meditate on a single word that I hope to carry into my day. Grace. Humility. Boldness. It’s amazing how thinking about that one simple concept for even just a few moments can shift how I interact with the world.

  • I am intensely curious about myself and carve out plenty of time for self reflection. If you don’t know what your hopes, fears, desires, motivations, pitfalls, hangups, etc are…how can you live with intention? You will spend your life in a reactionary state, motivated by things within you that you do not understand.

  • I have a vision for the legacy I want to leave. I periodically reflect on the statement “Because of me, my son will know __________________”. What am I teaching him about the world? What is most important for him to understand? What will he say about me when I am gone? Knowing how I want to fill in that blank gives me guidance on how I navigate relationships, how I spend my time/money/energy. It is a filter through which I can run every decision. How does this help build the legacy I hope to leave?

  • I know some areas where I want to have an impact, some social problems I want to draw attention to. I cannot do all of the things, so where can I be most effective? These questions have led me to my most exciting opportunities and have kept me from spending too much time and energy on perfectly fine things that would keep me from having the strongest impact possible in a few select areas. Your life is going to have an impact, but you get to decide whether that’s an intentional impact or a haphazard one.

  • Meditation. I can’t tell you how much meditation has changed my life and how much better my whole experience is when my meditation practice is healthy. Sitting still is hard. Quieting your mind is hard. There are so many lessons to be learned in that stillness that we carry into the chaos.

Are you living with intention, actively and purposefully shaping your own story?

Or are you just a consumer of it, turning the page to find out what comes next?

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When Your Spiritual Home No Longer Feels Safe

I was raised in what remains one of the most conservative and problematic denominations in the United States…the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). If you didn’t already know, the SBC formed when some (mostly southern) baptist churches wanted to uphold the practice of slavery and other (predominantly northern) baptist churches didn’t. Specifically, the southern churches thought slaveholders could serve as missionaries and the northern churches did not. The denomination literally was founded on the basis of racism and the SBC didn’t renounce or apologize for their views on slavery and segregation until 1995. That wasn’t a typo. 1995.

During my own college years, not all that long ago, when I was on staff at a Southern Baptist church hoping to be a force for good, another staff member sat in a meeting and told a room full of people that our church “wasn’t ready for black people”. Everyone mostly nodded in agreement. Not a single person challenged the idea. I am so ashamed. I had already started to unravel at that point, having stood witness to many instances of sexism, racism, and homophobia. The faith I had grown up in, the place where all my closest relationships had been formed, where I met my husband….it felt like a house of cards falling in on itself. It felt so unsafe, especially for the people I loved dearly who were not white heterosexual and cis gender. There’s a saying about sausage that I find myself often sharing in relation to organized religion. If you like sausage, don’t learn how it’s made. If you like church, don’t learn how it’s made. Once you see behind the curtain, once you are forced to confront your beloved denomination’s ugliest parts, it is impossible to unsee it. I could no longer reconcile what I knew of Jesus and what my church proclaimed to be with their actions. It’s an unraveling I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, an unraveling that honestly more than a decade later I am still wrestling with.

With the news coming down about the United Methodist Church maintaining its ban on same-sex marriage and refusing to ordain LGBTQIA+ clergy, my heart aches for those who are entering their own season of reckoning. The process of realizing that you can no longer affiliate yourself with an organization that claims love, but acts with hate is a grief that weighs heavy on your soul. Rarely is it an easy decision. I bet your church is full of people you love dearly, even if you disagree about some things. Your church probably holds some of your dearest memories. If you’ve been lucky enough to forge a community, your church is likely central to your identity and your social life. You may suddenly feel like maybe you don’t know your church at all. You’ll likely find yourself questioning everything….if this one thing is not what it seems, what else is astray? It’s possible you’ll start pulling that thread of doubt and the whole thing will unravel. You’ve probably long held out hope about what your church could be and suddenly it seems like maybe it will never be that thing. It’s all so ridiculously hard.

I realize that leaving isn’t the only choice or always the right choice. Staying and fighting for better is valid and good and hard in its own way. For the people who stay and fight, I am so grateful. For the people who need to walk away or take a break in the name of emotional safety, I understand your grief and hold you in the light. And I will always hold out hope for a day when denominations, including the one that I held dear for so many years, recognize their failure to love people well and then do everything in their power to make it right.

We can do better. We must do better.

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Interrupting the "isms": Doing Your Work Even When They Won't

Very few people are open to hearing that their behavior is problematic. If you’ve ever tried to give someone feedback that their “joke”/language/actions were racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic, etc, you know exactly what I am talking about. Inevitably, the person who said the problematic thing immediately gets defensive and shifts the conversation...suddenly you are no longer discussing what actually happened, but instead you are discussing their intentions and how they would never do anything of the sort. I can almost hear the words now….“But I’m not a racist!”. Everyone suddenly begins to act as if the person who called out the problematic behavior is over-reacting. They downplay the entire thing or worse, say it just didn’t happen. Gaslighting is way too common. The script gets flipped so quickly that you begin to question if what you experienced was problematic at all or maybe if it even happened the way you remember it. You get emotionally exhausted so you disengage from the conversation. And, if this bizarre privileged dismissive defensive cycle has happened to you enough, my guess is you’ve backed off from having these tough conversations altogether. But can I challenge you to consider something? While healthy boundaries are important and your emotional well-being matters, your job, our collective job, is to keep showing up and calling out problematic behavior when we see it regardless of how that feedback will be received. We are not responsible for how people receive that feedback, we are just responsible for how we deliver it.

When I was in graduate school, it suddenly became very apparent to me how problematic a lot of my language was about race, class, gender, and sexuality. I loved putting people in boxes, boxes that I was learning were made up social constructs. My partner, Dustin, was gracious enough to learn alongside me. In the midst of doing this work, we found a handy tool in our apartment to help us recognize when we said over-simplified or problematic things. We had been gifted this tall heavy glass cylinder from Crate & Barrel as a wedding gift. When you thumped the top of it, it rang loudly like a bell…the sound echoing around the room. It became our “stereotype bell”. We started using it on ourselves first. Anytime we would notice the other person using language that was based primarily in a stereotype, we’d ring the bell. It was a non-threatening and disarming way to interrupt and communicate “hey, I think what you just said was problematic”. It was super effective. The bell was ringing loudly and often in our home. We were having hard and important conversations. Suddenly, we found ourselves introducing and utilizing the stereotype bell with most of our friends too. We were pushing back against social norms, challenging ourselves to think outside the box of what gender, sexuality, race, and class were. It was really productive and really effective and completely and totally not well received by some of our friends. They hated that damn bell. They hated that we wouldn’t let them make assumptions about people based on an identity. They hated being called out. They hated the discomfort of challenging their worldview. We literally lost friends over the stereotype bell. After one particularly heated moment with a dear friend, we stopped using the bell. We apologized, gave it away to a thrift shop, and backed off. We were in our early twenties and I am ashamed to say that we were more concerned with making people feel comfortable than with challenging norms. But that’s an incredibly privileged thing to be able to do…to say that my comfort is more important than progress. I know better now. I am trying to do better now. Even though I still retreat to my privilege at times, I am making a conscious effort to show up, to remember that I am not responsible for how the information is received, I am only responsible for delivering it. How I deliver it also matters, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Here are some things to remember when you’ve delivered feedback that was not well-received or if you are afraid to deliver feedback knowing that it won’t be well-received:

  • There is only one person you can control in this situation….yourself. You cannot control the other person’s reaction and you cannot force them to receive the feedback with grace. More often than not, their reaction isn’t even about you….it’s about their own insecurities and ignorance. Do the right thing. Show up. Interrupt racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Do it even when you know it won’t “go well”.

  • Even if you think it’s not going to matter if you speak up, speak up anyway. You never know what seed you are planting, what foundation you are laying, that may help someone do some harder and deeper work down the road. They may never come back around and say “hey, when you called me out, it really made an impact”…but that doesn’t mean you didn’t make an impact. This is often thankless work that we don’t get to reap the harvest of. Do it anyway.

  • Remember, intent and impact are different things and more often than not intent matters less than impact. I’d like to think that I am a mostly kind and thoughtful person. Yet, sometimes I say and do really problematic things. I hope I am surrounded by people who will keep calling me out even though they know my heart. Impact matters.

  • Take care of yourself emotionally and talk through these situations with someone who is committed to “doing the work” too. When you are being gaslighted, it’s important to have a third party to process things with. They can help you keep perspective when you are too far into the weeds of a situation.

Most importantly, the message I hope you walk away with here, is to keep showing up and interrupting problematic behavior when you see it. It will rarely be easy, but it will always be the right thing to do.

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