In Lieu of Self-Control

In Lieu of Self-Control September 19, 2017


Recently someone asked me if I had all my babies naturally (as in, without an epidural).

As it turns out, I did, but I don’t feel like I can claim that bragging right as fully as some women. Women who have their babies naturally in American hospitals are going up against a society that thinks pain is a sign of something terribly wrong and a medical system that is eager to over-engage at every turn. So those who commit to a natural birth do so in the face of enormous pressure to do otherwise.

I had my babies in a couple of hospitals in East Africa where epidurals are not really a thing. I made a decision about where my girls would be born long before that late-night drive to the hospital. My doctor told me early on that the most he could do for me was give me a puff of laughing gas if I started to lose my mind in labor, so when I went ahead and opted not to fly back to the States to have my firstborn, the decision was made regardless of how I ultimately felt about it a few months later when I was pant-blowing through contractions.

I made that decision early on because I know something about myself: I am not a woman of great self-control. I often have a hard time staying committed to my values when those values began to hurt.

If I hit a hill on a run, I am very likely to start walking.

If there is chocolate in the house I will hide it from my children and surreptitiously eat every last crumble in a single day and lie about it when they smell it on my breath.

I start out strong reading through the Bible each year and usually stagger to a halt somewhere around April or Lamentations, whichever one comes first.

Quiet time early in the morning before kids are up has usually resulted in me staring sleepily into a cup of coffee praying shallow prayers while batting away thoughts of upcoming work projects and possible dinner plans.

Self-control is not my spiritual gift. When the run gets hard, the stomach gets hungry, the prayers get dry, and the soul gets distracted, I am very likely to just give up.

Which is why I had to get crazy.

Like most people, I have values that I really want my life to be oriented around. For me some of them are things like living (and eating) simply, living in community with the poor, having close friendships with people wildly different from me, practicing hospitality, learning other people’s languages.

It wasn’t long into my adult life when I started to realize that those things were going to be pretty hard to actually pull off in a meaningful way in the Bible Belt of America. Not impossible. Just really hard. I simply don’t have the self-control to stop caring that much about what my social peers think or to shake myself out of the spiritual laziness that I find so warm and inviting in a certain kind of safe America.

So in order to align my life with those things that I most wanted to shape the years that God gives me on this earth, I decided that I was going to have to do something extreme or else it simply wasn’t going to happen. I was going to have to make a big hard decision in order to make a thousand smaller ones. And for me and my family, that looked like going to be missionaries in North Africa.

Because in North Africa, all my safety nets and back-up plans went straight out the window.

I am friends with dirt poor refugees because their kids are the ones outside playing with mine.

We eat seasonally because if you don’t find a way to warm up to sorghum and okra, you’re going to be really hungry.

I live pretty simply because even though I still end up in the nicest house in the neighborhood, the ceiling on living standards are pretty low, so bucket baths and charcoal ovens it is.

I speak Arabic pretty well now because if I don’t, I don’t talk to anyone at all.

I am a lot more hospitable that I used to be, because even on days that I have a bad attitude about the fourth unexpected guest of the morning, I’m still going to put on the kettle and invite them in.

Because I don’t have a choice.

And I made sure I don’t have a choice because if I did, nine times out of ten I wouldn’t make the right one.

It may seem like I signed up for something really hard, but honestly, I can’t tell you how many times I have looked at my life and felt like I have copped out completely. I have peers who are wrestling with what it means to live counter-culturally in middle-class America and I am endlessly impressed. That takes thoughtful, creative, intentional self-control day in and day out. To me, they are propelling their boats slowly and steadily upstream, pushing against the current of popular culture in ways that are beautiful and challenging.

Me? I feel like I picked up my canoe and said, “Forget this,” and plopped it right down in a pond that may stink a little sometimes, but my muscles aren’t burning from the struggle not to get swept downstream. There are so many battles I don’t have to fight.

For those of you who have the self-control to turn your back on materialism, nationalism, ethno-centrism, sexism, racism and whatever other –isms that are so seductive and deadly in America today, God bless you. Well done. I am genuinely impressed and inspired.

But if, like me, you are not sure you have the self-control to actually pull that off, you need to consider making some big decisions that will free and empower you to live the life you really desire in your bones.

You really want to spend more time with your family but life is just too crazy busy? Throw away your TV.

You hate how much time your phone sucks away from you? Turn it off at supper and don’t look at it again until you get up in the morning.

Want to have more black friends (or poor friends, or gay friends, or immigrant friends…)? Sell your house and buy another one in a very different neighborhood.

You hate how much crap you own? Go through your closet and give away everything you haven’t worn, played with, read or looked at in the past month. Literally.

Want to be more hospitable? Resolve to have someone over for dinner every Thursday night even if it is for left-over pizza and you have to shovel laundry off of the dining room table.

Want to be more spiritually disciplined? Fast one day a month (or week). Not just from Facebook or “being negative” but crawl-into-bed-ravenous kind of fasting.

Do something hard in order to make a lot of other things so much easier.

There are things you value with all your heart of which there is no evidence in your life.

Start there.

There are always more ways to grow, new challenges and ideas to chew one. But start with the stuff you already believe in. And then do something about it. Create a life in which you have no option but to live a little more simply, or more generously, or more kindly, or more sacrificially. Don’t give yourself a way out.

And when you do this, savor the gift of freedom you find waiting on the other side.

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