Simple Living

Autumn LeavesSimple living can seem elusive. In a world focused on achieving and accumulating more and bumper stickers that read, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” the reality of simple living seems like some pie-in-the sky ambition, a trend. Despite the proliferation of products, books, magazines, classes, and organizational systems guaranteed to simplify our lives, most of us continue to hurry through life, pursuing activities and making purchases that ultimately add to life’s clutter. There has to be a better way.

As my rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune diseases have worsened over the years, my desire for simple living has grown. It has become a quality of life issue for me; and if you live with chronic illness, it is one for you as well. Ask yourself, Do I really want to spend my limited physical and emotional energy dusting rooms full of things I never use? How much physical, emotional, and spiritual space could I free up if I removed the clutter from my life?

But how do you define simple living? What’s simple for me might not be simple for you.

I have looked for a satisfying definition for years, but could never seem to find one that fit. Until now. My thanks to author Tsh Oxenreider, who wrote Organized Simplicity: The Clutter Free Approach to Intentional Living, for her definition, which I have adopted for my life as well. She says this: “It applies to everybody; it’s timeless, and it’s not bound by cultural trends or norms. It can be your definition for the rest of your life.” Her definition of simple living is this: living holistically with your life’s purpose. And I would add: life purpose is always directed toward others.

Holistic living means the different parts of your life all line up in the same direction—toward your life’s purpose. “All the independent things in your life—the items you own, how you spend your time, the relationships you cultivate, and the books you read—ultimately benefit your life’s purpose,” writes Oxenreider. “There is no clutter. The hours and days and weeks reflect your priorities, and so does the space in which you live.”

So simple, yet so profound.

Removing the Clutter

Personally, I’ve made several significant changes to my life over the past year, all of which fall under the category of moving toward a more simple, meaningful life that supports my life purpose and gives me the time and energy I need to focus of what I value most. I have not yet arrived, but I am headed in the right direction.

Here are two significant changes I’ve made over the past year, along with the benefits these changes brought:

Home as Sanctuary

For most of my life, I viewed my home as a quick place to refuel rather than a sanctuary. Cluttered with things acquired over more than thirty years of marriage, I had my space (my office and bookcases) and my husband had his (the basement and garage). The basement contained his lazy-boy leather recliners while my office featured artwork, books, and pops of color. And never the twain shall meet.

As my health declined, I began spending more time at home. The cry of my soul was for a sanctuary and a space that would reflect not only me but us as a couple. And so I created one.

My husband and I sold our beaten-up, clunky furniture, along with the tschotchkes we had scattered throughout the house that survived our son’s growing up years, two dogs, and two rabbits in a garage sale. We replaced our old things with simple, inexpensive furniture with clean lines. We painted the walls, cleared the clutter, and created the home of our dreams—all while staying on a budget. Our home now reflects us as individuals and as a couple. It brings together two very different personalities as one, a reflection of the marital relationship and union.

Just as we retain our individuality in marriage, so, too, we’ve made for individual expression in our home. As a writer and coach, I spend many hours in my office, so I needed a warm, inviting, and inspiring space where I could spend hours at a time. I painted the walls a spicy red with orange undertones, aptly named “Salsa Dancing,” and filled the room with books, artwork, and family photos. My husband is creating a media room in the basement, filled with leather recliners and football paraphernalia.

My home is a sanctuary, a place of refuge that nourishes my soul and feeds my spirit. It is a place where I worship God by honoring the person he created me to be—a wife, a friend, a writer, a coach.

But it’s more than that.

What I failed to realize was the impact it would have on my relationships. More stuff usually means less time for relationships. I resisted friends just “dropping by” before, because the house was cluttered, and I could never clean the whole house at once with my limited mobility. With less to clean, I now have more time to cultivate meaningful relationships; and I love when friends drop by for coffee or conversation.

My home also gives me “soul space…room to breathe and freedom to dream,” as my friend, Jerome Daley, describes in his book, Soul Space. In it, he says, “Only a few things are necessary. The rest is clutter.”

With the clutter gone, all that surrounds me supports my life purpose—to foster spiritual and personal transformation in the lives of others through writing, coaching, speaking, and teaching.

I had no idea how significant a few simple changes could be.

Depth in Relationships and Life

Of course, no discussion of simple living would be complete without addressing relationships. Relationships matter. A lot.

I met with my friend Robbie for lunch this week, and the issue of relationships came up. He made an observation that captivated me. He said many of us go through life like skipping stones.

Do you remember skipping stones as a child? The pastime involves throwing a stone with a flattened surface across a lake or other body of water in such a way that it bounces off the surface of the water. Robbie describes it this way: “Many of us are skipping rocks in our relationship with God and one another. We rush through life at such a pace that we hit the surface of interaction…and we bounce to the next person or the next big thing.” He points out that in the process, we miss the depth and richness of relationships. “If we slowed down long enough, we would sink to the depth of relationship that God has in mind.”

This past year, I have been intentional about going deeper in life and relationships. I am opening myself up to others in a new way, without pretense or apology. I share the good, the bad, and the ugly. My friends know me and love me despite my self-centeredness, my half-baked ideas, and the way that I sometimes try to make myself out to be something that I am not.

They have taught me not only love but also grace, a kindness I don’t deserve. What I receive from them and others, I seek to freely give to all those who come across my path. The woman at the cash register who rung up my purchase wrong twice, while I was standing there in pain. Grace. The neighbor whose dog did his business in my front yard. Grace. The friend who showed up a half hour late for lunch. Grace.

I am learning to look beyond the surface and into the hearts and lives of the people around me. It’s changing me. And I think it’s changing them, too.

My relationship with God has deepened, too. I have moved from religion and fabricated rules to deepening spirituality and real freedom. I worship not only in church but with the whole of my life and relationships.

Yes, my health is deteriorating. What I did a year ago, I can no longer do. But as I funnel my limited strength and energy through the filter of my life’s purpose and reach out with love and grace to others, I am learning that I can live with far less than I think. To live a significant, meaningful life, I need very little. And what I need is not found in achieving or acquiring more.

This past year as I have began to remove more and more clutter from my life, I found what I’ve been missing in the busyness of life. For the first time in years, my external world—my home, my relationships, how I spend my time—line up with my internal compass as I live out my life’s purpose. Most days, I have a deep, abiding sense of peace and purpose.

How about you?

Why I Left My Church

iStock_000000797494Large[1]Earlier this year, I left my church. Not any church mind you, but the church at which I had spent the last 24 years, the church that served as a healing balm during the most difficult season of my life, and the church where I learned to lead from the sidelines as well as from the stage.

Two years earlier, I had sensed this day was coming. And I prayed that I would leave well.

During those two years, endings from my youth would often come to mind. With deep regret and sorrow, I remembered the times I had left jobs and relationships in rebellion or rage, dishonoring God and myself, and damaging others in the process.

I had never learned how to leave well.

I’m grateful that one of my closest friends, and the pastor of the church I ultimately went to, taught me how.

Why I Left My Church

But before I tell you more about how I left, let me first share with you what was going on inside of me.

A significant interior shift preceding my move began with a growing desire to impart to young, emerging leaders what God had been pouring into me for years. With it, a calling to mentor women who lead in nontraditional roles and ways, also surfaced.

As a professional coach and spiritual director, this had been the main focus of my work for a while now. I thrived in this environment, as did the women who came for help.

Concurrently, I felt a growing call to spiritual formation and the creative, contemplative lifestyle. I began to explore classic, but sometimes forgotten, Christian disciplines, such as silence and solitude, slowing and Sabbath, the prayer of examen and more.

Of course, in hindsight, I see how important and necessary this time was for many reasons. Primarily, it was a time of filling my inner reservoir with living water that others might later draw from it.

At the time, I didn’t see it. I just felt it was slowing me down, and I chafed at the restraint.

Finally, the moment to depart came two years later, when I learned that I church I had felt drawn to for years, was launching a campus the next town over.

It seemed like an ideal fit on so many levels—they were called to reach the very people I felt called to serve in this season; they were über creative; and although their theology was orthodox, the methods they used to minister were decidedly not. On the surface, it seemed like a perfect fit.

Intrigued, I contacted their Pastor of Coaching (What are the odds, right?), who put me in touch with the campus pastor for the new location. During our first meeting he made it clear that I would be warmly welcomed at the church . . . but not before talking with my current pastor.

It was the very thing I had wanted to do, but didn’t know how to do it well. And it was what I watched my friend do with humility and grace, as she and her husband moved across the country to plant a church.

Now, it was my turn.

Hard Conversations

I scheduled a meeting with my pastor on a snowy afternoon in December. Sitting in his office watching the snow fall gently outside his window, I felt blanketed by God’s love and as safe as a child being tucked in at night by his or her parent.

I admired my pastor tremendously, although I didn’t always agree with his perspective on certain issues. He was a man deeply dependent on God who, from what I could see, lived a life of prayer. I not only admired him, I had grown to love him after more than 24 years.

My pastor didn’t hesitate to ask me the hard questions. I love that about him. “Did you feel your gifts weren’t used here?” “What is going on in your home life?” “How is your marriage?”

We talked about dreams and legacy and the beauty of God-sized dreams. And I thanked him for leading well and told him what a healing place the church had been in such a significant time of my life.

As the snow fall grew heavier, we decided to tie up our time together with prayer, but not before he asked me to come back the following day for a time of prayer with his wife and a few other members of the staff. He wanted to “commission me and send me out” from their midst with a prayer and a blessing.

Can you believe it?

Tears of gratitude and thanksgiving fell, and I walked out affirmed and confident that I had not left my church. Rather, God had sent me out for His purposes and His glory.

There’s a big difference between leaving and being called out.

Lessons Learned

Lessons learned from this journey will carry me forward for years. As I reflected on what I learned through the process, I wanted to share it with you, because I believe there are people who need to hear this message.

  • Wait on God’s timing. Although I knew for two years earlier, I was being led out; I remained prayerful, seeking God’s perfect timing. When the right time came, I moved quickly. Godly confidence was the fruit of years of prayer.
  • Give honor to whom honor is due. My pastor had paid a price for his faithfulness to the gospel. He fought many spiritual battles and I could see the toll obedience to God had taken. I honored him and blessed him for his ministry in my life and his service for the kingdom.
  • Check your heart motives. Are you leaving because you don’t like the worship music or the preaching, or are you leaving because God has called you out? Have you dealt with any impure heart issues, such as unforgiveness, a judgmental spirit, or bitterness before meeting with those in leadership?
  • Practice the discipline of restraint. God often gives a vision that will unfold in the future. Use it as an opportunity to practice the discipline of restraint.
  • Communicate clearly. Don’t just drop out of the life of your church with no explanation or communication with leadership. Not everyone needs to meet with the lead pastor, but you should meet with someone—a small group leader, the worship and creative arts pastor . . . whomever you serve under.

A lack of authenticity and uprightness in the way you handle your departure causes damage to the hearts and lives of others. Walk in love because He first loved you.

I learned that the decision to leave your church should never be taken lightly. It should also be made with prayer, counsel, and in God’s timing.

In my opinion, far too many people leave churches today for reasons that are nothing more than their own self-centeredness — they don’t like the music, or the preaching, or the band is too loud. Really?

We should go to church to contribute, not to consume. It’s time for the church in America to grow up.

I like a phrase coined by a colleague, “If you are called to stay, stay well. If you are called to leave, leave well.”

Whether you stay or go, do it all the glory of God.

 

Stretching Toward Joy While Living with Pain

tree“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.” Deuteronomy 30:19-20 NRSV

 A casual photo taken at a gathering of friends before Christmas sent a wave of shock through my soul, not unlike the physical pain that coursed through my spine when I broke my back while horseback a few years ago.

They say a picture speaks a thousand words, but this photo spoke only one—kyphosis. A word, which has entered my vocabulary only recently, meaning an excessive outward curvature of the spine, causing a hunching of the back. Although multiple causes lead to this condition, in my case, it was only one.

Ankylosing spondylitis. A deforming inflammatory arthritis of the spine diagnosed almost 20 years ago is taking a toll that I can no longer hide.

Images of Igor, the hunchbacked assistant to the mad scientist in Frankenstein, flash across my mind. I wince at memories of the cinematic portrayals of such an ugly creature.

Grieving yet another loss this past holiday season, I sought comfort in the pages of a book—Emilie Griffin’s Green Leaves for Later Years: The Spiritual Path of Wisdom. In it, she poses the question, “Can we find our happiness by stretching toward it?”

These words hold special meaning for me, because I know that the author lives with rheumatoid arthritis, a different type of inflammatory arthritis, one that I have as well. I am certain she has wrestled this question to the ground, which is what I am attempting to do this year as well.

“The depths of the . . . arthritis experience are both spiritual and physical,” she continues.

And so it is.

Stretching Toward Happiness

She points to the painter Pierre August Renoir (1841-1919) who also lived with inflammatory arthritis. The famed painter wrote, “I believe I am nearer to God by being humble before his splendor; by accepting the role I have been given to play in life; by honoring this majesty without self-interest, and above all, without asking for anything, being confident that He who has created everything has forgotten nothing.” These words, captured by Renoir’s son Jean, appear in his memoir Renoir, My Father.

To his dying breath, Renoir maintained his love of beauty, choosing to honor His Creator through the work of his deformed, claw-like hands.

The story is told of Henri Matisse paying Renoir a visit on day, and hearing Renoir cry out I’m pain with each brushstroke, he said, “Master, you have already created a vast and important body of work, why continue torturing yourself in this way.”

“Very simple,” Renoir said. “Beauty remains, but pain passes.”

Everything Beautiful in Its Time

Yes, “He has made everything beautiful in its time (Ecclesiastes 3:11).”

Like Renoir, I must open my eyes to see each day’s beauty as it unfolds, even when it is cast against the canvas of deformity and pain. The beauty seems to shine more brightly against the darkness.

Despite my physical capacity, which ebbs away with the ticking of the clock, the landscape of my inner world extends farther than it ever has before. Books read. Conversations shared. People loved.

Join me this year as I mine treasures from the darkness and stretch toward joy while living with the mystery of suffering.

The Road Ahead: When Less is More

iStock_000000797494Large[1]Exhausted and utterly spent, I am close to the edge.

It is a familiar but unhappy place, one in which I have spent for most of my life.

From as far back as I could remember, I have been driven—driven to succeed, to perform, to seek love and approval by producing work of exceptional — almost impossible — quality even as a young child.

What drives a person to push beyond healthy limits, causing her to over produce? I believe the answers are many and layered—answers I hope to uncover over the next several months.

God first drew my attention to this destructive tendency during the winter of 2007. In a quaint bed and breakfast nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains on, I experienced God in a way that I had not for months. During my prayer time my first morning there, a profound sense of God’s peace and presence enveloped me like a protective cocoon. It remained snugly wrapped around me for the entire weekend.

I emerged from that weekend transformed, but also aware that I would have to be intentional about making changes in my life. Tough changes.

A Sabbatical for My Soul

Shortly after returning from that weekend, I took a sabbatical, temporarily leaving my Pentecostal church of 20 years and returning to my spiritual roots –a small, Anglican Church not far from my home to rest in anonymity. I recall sitting there my first Sunday back. Light flooded in from the stained glass windows, bringing with it a tactile and sensory experience, rich with symbolism and metaphor – the language of my soul.

Although the sensory experience was satisfying, the spiritual experience seemed not to suit me as it had years ago. After 18 months, I returned to my Pentecostal church, strengthened by the outpouring of love I had received.

As is often my way, I jumped back in with everything I had. Of course, it wasn’t long before I found myself once again on the performance treadmill of “serving God,” a.k.a. “ministry,” in most evangelical churches.

So it should come as no surprise to me, that in the summer of 2013, I have hit a wall.

I have nothing left.

And I sense that is just where God wants me. A place where there are no quick fixes.

But this time it frightens me. It is different from times past. The exhaustion has seeped into my bones; and despite my best efforts, I can’t push through the debilitating fatigue I feel this time around.

A new diagnosis of hypothyroidism, along with existing anemia and abnormalities in my blood and liver, has left me feeling like I have one foot over the edge, and unless I do something drastic, I will fall.

Sure, the medications for my thyroid will relieve some of my symptoms over time, but the combination of the chronic anemia and the abnormalities in my blood, along with a bone disease, leave me doubtful that my energy level will even approach anything in the normal range.

I’m at the end of myself.

And I sense that is just where God wants me.

Although it’s uncomfortable, it’s not an entirely bad place to be. While I am at the end of one season of life, it is also marks the beginning of another. One that requires less of me. More of God.

I will need time to adjust.

A New Season

As I have tried and failed to overcome my new physical limits, a harsh reality has seared my soul. What has worked in the past will not work now. My life requires a complete overhaul, orchestrated by God Himself. I’ve done what I can, and it’s not enough.

What does that mean practically?

I’m not sure. But I do know that it means soul-wrenching changes.

Although I’m just beginning to get a sense of the changes I need to make, here is what I know so far:  In just a few months, provided all goes well, I will begin a formal year-long spiritual direction program. Structured around such core spiritual practices as contemplation, study, and relationships, it promises a slower, easier way of life that seems ideally suited to this season of life. My hope is that the structure of the program and the accountability will enable me to achieve what I’ve been unable to do on my own – a healthy, sustainable way of life.

Ancient Practices

Recently, I have also found myself intrigued by some of the experiences of what some call, “the Dessert Fathers and Mothers,” a monastic movement that saw stillness, rest, quiet, and silence as central to the practice of prayer. It was common in the community I was a part of early in my faith journey, and now it seems that I am to return there once again. This expression of faith seems to suit my temperament, as well as my limitations, values, and season of life.

While I have some reservations about whether I can change my schedule to make it work, it appeals to me on many levels, not the least of which is that it allows me to focus on what I feel God is calling me to for this season: prayer, rest, study, work (speaking, writing, spiritual direction), and relationships.

Will it work? I can’t say.

But it gives me the hope that I need to forge ahead despite growing physical limitations.

And, for now, that is enough.

 

 

The Price of God’s Favor

“Favor makes for a dangerous life,” Gary Wilkerson wrote in a devotional that came across my desk this morning.

He cites several biblical examples:

  • Mary found favor with God and became the mother Jesus. A sword pierced her heart.
  • Joseph found favor with God and received prophetic dreams. His angry brothers rejected him and sold him into slavery.
  • Abel found favor with God through an acceptable sacrifice. His jealous brother, Cain, took his life.
  • Abraham found favor with God to become a father of nations. God called him to leave behind his father’s house and the country that he loved.

The price of leadership is high.

May we never trade the purposes and favor of God for a life of comfort and ease.

Chronic Illness and the Holidays: Give the Gift of Self-Care

Chronic pain and illness can make any day a challenge, but throw in holiday stress and expectations, and it can push over the edge. The idealistic holiday parties depicted on television and in books and magazines just add to the stress. Unrealistic gift-giving guides and tips on hosting the perfect holiday party or family gathering can leave you feeling depressed, lonely, and grieving your losses. The good news is proper self-care can help you manage your pain and fatigue and get the most out of this holiday season.

It might be tempting to view self-care as selfish. However, it is anything but.

In his book, Let Your Life Speak, author Parker J. Palmer offers these insightful words, “Self-care is never a selfish act — it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.”

So for you—and for the people you love—start this holiday season by giving yourself the gift of self-care. Here are a few tips to help you get started:

Prioritize. Ask yourself and family members, “What will make the holidays meaningful this year?”
You cannot do everything this holiday season, so why not focus on what is meaningful to you and your loved ones? One woman asked her husband this question and he replied, “Stop doing so much and just sit down and have fun with me.” The gift of time is sometimes the greatest gift we can give those we love. If it is a choice between a perfectly decorated house or meaningful time spent with family members, most people prefer giving and receiving the gift of presence.

Limit holiday gift giving.
Many people I talk to find holiday gift giving excessive and stressful. To minimize stress, one woman I know decided to eliminate gift giving to adult family members entirely, focusing instead on buying one or two small presents for children or grandchildren in the family. Another person is donating money to charity in a friend or family member’s name. If you do shop, do so online. Most stores will gift wrap your gift and include a personal note from you for an additional fee, saving physical and emotional wear and tear on your body.

Communicate your needs and feelings to others.
Because many chronic illnesses are invisible, it means that others may not be aware of your physical and emotional limits. It is your responsibility to communicate your needs to others. Sometimes comparing what you’re going through to something they are familiar with can help. For example, “Do you know what you feel like when you’re coming down with the flu? The pain and fatigue of rheumatoid arthritis feel that way to me today. Could we just stay home and talk instead of going out today?”

Grieve your losses.
The holidays often bring painful memories to the surface — the loss of a loved one or pet, strained or broken family relationships, and memories of past holidays can dampen holiday cheer. If you are sad this holiday season, take time to acknowledge your feelings by sharing them with a friend or family member or by writing in a paper or electronic journal. Consider honoring the memories of those you have loved and lost by donating to a charity in their name. Don’t be afraid to cry if it makes you feel better. Tears can be healing.

Just say no.
With limited physical and emotional reserves, it is sometimes necessary to choose between holiday events and activities. As much as we would like to, we just cannot do it all. For example, I recently declined an invitation to a church Christmas dinner, which was scheduled a few days before a cross-country flight I’ll be making to visit my son and his wife. Knowing the toll traveling takes on my body, I decided to conserve my energy for the flight.

Give yourself a gift that nourishes body and soul.
Chronic illness can be difficult not only physically but emotionally as well. Consider giving yourself a gift that nourishes body and soul. My favorites include a massage or facial, a good book, or a weekend away with friends. Treat yourself this year to a gift that nourishes body and soul.

While incorporating these self-care tips into your life this holiday season will help, they won’t completely eliminate holiday stress. But they will go a long way toward helping   you make this holiday season your best one yet.

Rx for the Holidays: Cultivate Gratitude

Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday season, and with it, festive times with friends and family. However, for those living with chronic disease and illness, unrealistic expectations, difficulties with travel, and busy schedules can add up to increased pain and fatigue, which takes not only a physical toll but an emotional toll as well. Fortunately, one aspect of the Thanksgiving holiday can actually improve your physical, emotional, and mental health — an “attitude of gratitude.”

A growing body of research suggests that cultivating gratitude can lead to better overall health, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life, and even boost your love life. According to Robert Emmons—editor in chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology, grateful thinking can also increase you happiness by as much as 25 percent, while keeping a gratitude journal for as little as three weeks can increase your energy and result in better sleep.

While no one is suggesting you deny or minimize the challenges you face daily living with chronic pain and disease, you can improve your health for focusing on the good things in your life rather than the bad.

Consider Ann Voskamp, author of One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are. As a child, she and her mother watched as a truck crushed her sister. Consequently, her mother, diagnosed with split personality disorder, checked herself into a psychiatric ward. As an adult, she watched her brother-in-law bury his first two sons. Voskamp transformed her pain with gratitude.

And so can you.

Improve Your Health with Thankfulness

Here are a few suggestions to help you get started:

  • Start a gratitude journal. This is probably the quickest, easiest way to increase your gratitude. What’s more, it need not take a lot of time. If you are not the journaling type, make a list instead, writing down three to five things you are grateful for each day. Keep your journal where you will see it daily — perhaps near the coffeemaker or refrigerator. The important thing is to begin to pay attention to gratitude-inspiring events, both big and small. If writing is not for you, try a visual journal. If you have smartphone, download the One Thousand Gifts app, and capture each day’s gifts using the camera on your phone.
  • Use visual reminders to celebrate life’s simple pleasures.  Recently, my husband and I traveled to Shenandoah National Park to hike some of the trails. The pain and the fatigue of my rheumatoid arthritis make hiking difficult, so we hiked only the easiest of trails. Before starting our first hike of the day, I bought a wooden walking stick in a local gift shop because balance is sometimes a problem for me when I am in pain. Our weekend was a wonderful, and I was surprised at how far I was able to hike. After we got home, I decided to display my walking stick on my office wall — a visual reminder of what I accomplished that day
  • Express gratitude and thanks for and to others. If you find it difficult to find things in your own life to be grateful for, express gratitude to others for the gift they are to you. Write a letter to a friend or relative, thanking them for the positive impact they have had on your life. Thank the barista for your morning coffee, your spouse for taking out the trash, or your children for remembering to call.
  • Try the “It’s a Wonderful Life” approach. Imagine what your life would be like without your spouse, a job, or a hobby. Picture what the lives of those you love would be like without you. Consider the impact you have on your children and grandchildren, the difference your support makes to your spouse, and the contributions you have made to your workplace or community. When you stop to think about it, the impact you have had on others is sometimes surprising.

Gratitude will not eliminate your pain or cure your disease, but it will certainly improve the quality of your life — and your health.

 

Can Art Heal? Using Art to Transcend Chronic Pain and Illness

Can tapping into our creativity help us transcend chronic pain and illness? Can art heal not only our bodies but also our soul and spirits?

Questions like these have been part of my ongoing quest to live well with chronic pain and illness. While some answers remain elusive, others are more readily apparent.

Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases in 1997, I have found artistic self-expression a valuable tool for transcending the physical and emotional pain I live with daily. Over the years, creative expression has helped me overcome traumatic losses, find relief from overwhelming emotions, and experience spiritual and personal growth.

As children, you probably found enjoyment in creativity activities — drawing pictures, making sand castles, or cutting paper snowflakes. However, if you are like most adults, you may not consider yourself creative. But everyone can experience the healing power of art and creativity and use it to manage chronic pain and illness.

Transcending Illness: Pierre August Renoir

As an example of using art to transcend pain and illness consider painter Pierre August Renoir (1841-1919). Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1898, Renoir dealt with his illness by expressing the fullness and beauty of life through art, finding it deeply spiritual.

Even as he lost the use of his body, he found great joy in creative expression:

I believe I am nearer to God by being humble before this splendor (nature); by accepting the role I have been given to play in life; by honoring this majesty without self-interest, and above all, without asking for anything, being confident that He who has created everything has forgotten nothing[i].

 In his memoir, Renoir, My Father, his son Jean remembers his father in his later years:

His hands were terribly deformed. His rheumatism had made his joints stiff and caused the thumbs to turn inward towards the palms, and the fingers to bend toward the wrists. Visitors who were unprepared for this could not take their eyes off his deformity. Though they did not dare to mention it, their reaction would be expressed by some such phrase as, “It isn’t possible! With hands like that, how can he paint those pictures? There’s some mystery somewhere.” The “mystery” was Renoir himself[ii].

Despite his pain and deformity, Renoir did not lose his love for beauty or creative self-expression.

Giving and Receiving Joy through Art

Like Renoir, I, too, find joy and healing through creative self-expression and art.

Shortly after my RA diagnosis, I found myself with an overwhelming desire to write, a desire I remember first surfacing while reading Little Women as a child. I had spent a lifetime wondering if I had what it took to make a living as a writer. My diagnosis gave me an opportunity to find out. Against all odds, my writing found its way to print; and now, fifteen years later, I make my living as a commercial and freelance writer and certified life coach.

But, it’s about so much more than making a living. For me, writing is a way of caring for the chronically ill, people in emotional pain, and others who are facing spiritual, physical, or emotional limitations. Writing is a refuge, a place where I find joy and meaning in the midst of life’s ugliness and pain, a place where I can become fully absorbed in the beauty and rhythm of words and forget life’s pain. Through my writing, I both give and receive.

Such is the beauty of art. It nourishes not only the one who receives but also the one who gives.

Making Art — Now It’s Your Turn

Artistic expression in any form — whether it’s writing in a journal, taking an art class, or visiting a museum — refreshes body, soul, and spirit. The process of making and enjoying art creates a physiological response that increases levels of serotonin, the “feel good chemical,” in our brains. It distracts us from our pain and gives us tools for expressing difficult emotions, helps us find meaning in suffering, and reignites hope for the future.

The good news is you don’t have to be a professional artist to experience the benefits and healing power of creativity. Making art is easier than you think:

  • Take a class. What interests you? Take a neighborhood or online class that stretches you creatively. Follow your passion and explore writing, drawing, or pottery, expressing your thoughts and feelings through art.
  •  Make a visual journal. When thumbing through the pages of a magazine or newspaper, cut out articles, photos, or quotes that capture your attention. Paste them in your journal. Jot a quick note about why they captured your attention. Use these articles and images as a catalyst for prayer.
  • Create a legacy for your family by writing your life story. Writing your life story is a powerful healing tool and a way to share your story with the generations to come. Whether you decide to write your story in the pages of a journal or publish a book, memoir writing is easier now than ever. For tips on how to tell your story, visit the National Association of Memoir Writers online.
  • Cook a gourmet meal.  Pick up a cooking magazine at the store and try a new recipe. Create the mood you want by paying special attention to lighting, presentation, and setting while you dine.
  • Capture the beauty of nature through photography. Pick up a camera and capture nature’s beauty while taking a walk or going for a drive. Delight your senses with the sights and sounds of God’s creation.

Making art will not cure your chronic pain and illness. You will continue to feel pain, struggle with discouragement, and wish you were healthy. But creativity can enhance your overall quality of life, increase your understanding of yourself, and help you realize your potential for growth and change, bringing you great joy in the process.

 


[i] Jean Renoir, Renoir, My Father (New York; NYBR, 1962), 226.

[ii] Ibid. 25.

Harnessing the Power of Place

Not long ago, during a time when stress and fatigue had taken their toll on my body, I booked a weekend away at a local bed and breakfast.

Nestled in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I watched breathtaking mountain sunsets, delighted in deer frolicking in the woods, and sat for hours in a red Adirondack chair, soaking in the beauty around me.

It was healing.

But most of the time, the converse is true. I spend time in stressful places — doctor’s offices and hospitals, crowded shopping malls and airports, and places with far too many people crammed in far too little space, all of which trigger a stress response in me. And since stress can make you sick, that’s a problem.

Can our physical space help us heal or make us feel worse?

According to Esther M. Sternberg, MD, who lives with inflammatory arthritis, it can. “The idea that physical space might contribute to healing does, it turns out, have a scientific basis,” she says in her compelling book, Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well Being.

“The first study to tackle this question, published in Science magazine in 1984, showed that when hospital rooms have windows looking out on the natural world, patients heal more rapidly.”

Since then, multiple studies have shown that that not only views of nature accelerate healing, but other environmental factors make a difference as well — reducing noise, sunlight, spending time in social places and places for contemplation all accelerate healing, reduce pain, and improve mood.

While place cannot cure chronic pain and illness, it can make a big difference in the way you feel, improving your physical and mental health and your quality of life.

The Power of Place

Several months ago, I experienced this first hand when I attended a writer’s conference at Abiquiu, New Mexico, at the Ghost Ranch, a place made famous by artist Georgia O’Keefe who depicted the red hills surrounding the property in her paintings.

Despite a long, cross-country flight, getting very little sleep, and recovering from surgery to correct three fractured vertebrae, I experienced virtually no pain during the conference.

“Why is that?” a friend asked.

The answer lies in the power of place.

Rustic but comfortable housing, reflective of its origins as a working ranch, dirt paths, and breathtaking vistas of colorful sandstone cliffs, cottonwoods, and distant mountains all worked to heal my soul. New and existing friendships gave me a deep sense of belonging, providing a safe place where I could be “known” and celebrated.

Healing Spaces

While I cannot move to New Mexico, I can create an environment at home that contributes to my health and wellbeing — spiritually, physically, and emotionally. As an introvert, I crave silence and solitude. For me, they are a necessity, not a luxury. It’s what I need to thrive.

Color speaks to me as well. I painted my office a warm clay color — not unlike the mountains and hills surrounding the ghost ranch, and a Georgia O’Keefe print hangs over my writing desk for inspiration. The walls in my living area are a soft sage, reminding me of happy times spent with my father walking through the woods.

Recently, I’ve been intrigued by a new thought—creating a sanctuary garden in my back yard, complete with a gazebo, or at least a bench serves as a reading nook. I started this summer by planting English lavender, my favorite plant, in the front yard and the back. Right now, I’m researching plants and landscaping, determining my next steps.

Designs for Healing

If you’d like to create a healing space in your home or office, consider these simple tips to get started

Add color and texture to your home. Infuse your home with a profusion of texture and color throughout the seasons. Use your imagination and let your home reflect your unique personality. Are you bold and daring? Accent your home with colorful paintings, accessories, and flowers you can change with the seasons.

Play healing music. Some hospitals are turning to harp music to help patients heal. According to experts, music played on acoustic stringed instruments have several unique healing properties. Rita A. Schrimpf, a Certified Music Practitioner, says this on her website, “The resonance from the strings, including the range of pitch and tonal color, set up an important relationship between the sound and the recipient…Music has beneficial effects that can enhance the overall quality of patient care”.

Create a sanctuary garden. Surround yourself with plants and flowers that make you smile. Add a gazebo or bench where you can lose yourself in the beauty of God’s creation. Terry Hershey, who designs sanctuary gardens, advises, “The best garden is one where the gardener finds joy. Think of gardening as telling a story. Your story.”

Live your passion. A dear friend, who is an artist, continually loses herself in her work for hours at a time, despite living with chronic pain and illness. The world can be following apart around her, but when she is creating art, she loses all sense of time. Fully engrossed in the work of her hands, she finds deep joy and healing for her soul.

What breathes life into your soul?

Chances are it will bring healing to your body and mind as well.