Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Perspective: From Within

I recently reading the following three books (descriptions from

City of God: Faith in the Streets by Sara Miles:

On Ash Wednesday, 2012, Sara Miles and her friends left their church buildings and carried ashes to the buzzing city streets: the crowded dollar stores, beauty shops, hospital waiting rooms, street corners and fast-food joints of her neighborhood. They marked the foreheads of neighbors and strangers, sharing blessings with waitresses and drunks, believers and doubters alike. 

CITY OF GOD narrates the events of the day in vivid detail, exploring the profound implications of touching strangers with a reminder of common mortality. As the story unfolds, Sara Miles also reflects on life in her city over the last two decades, where the people of God suffer and rejoice, building community amid the grit and beauty of this urban landscape.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by BrenĂ© Brown

Each day we face a barrage of images and messages from society and the media telling us who, what, and how we should be. We are led to believe that if we could only look perfect and lead perfect lives, we'd no longer feel inadequate. So most of us perform, please, and perfect, all the while thinking, "What if I can't keep all of these balls in the air? Why isn't everyone else working harder and living up to my expectations? What will people think if I fail or give up? When can I stop proving myself?"
In her ten guideposts, Brown engages our minds, hearts, and spirits as she explores how we can cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, "No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough," and to go to bed at night thinking, "Yes, I am sometimes afraid, but I am also brave. And, yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable, but that doesn't change the truth that I am worthy of love and belonging."

One Sunday afternoon, as she unloaded the dishwasher, Gretchen Rubin felt hit by a wave of homesickness. Homesick—why? She was standing right in her own kitchen. She felt homesick, she realized, with love for home itself. “Of all the elements of a happy life,” she thought, “my home is the most important.” In a flash, she decided to undertake a new happiness project, and this time, to focus on home.

And what did she want from her home? A place that calmed her, and energized her. A place that, by making her feel safe, would free her to take risks. Also, while Rubin wanted to be happier at home, she wanted to appreciate how much happiness was there already.

In this order, I finished these books. I enjoyed them all, but I found myself drawn much more strongly to the first two than the last one. I devoured Sara Miles' book in a matter of hours. I had The Gifts of Imperfection on audiobook and I literally did thousands of extra steps a day to cram in more minutes of listening. Rubin's book took me about two weeks of stopping and starting. 
The Brown book and the Rubin book might seem very similar to each other. Brown has a great narrative style, even in communicating research about shame and vulnerability. Rubin has never met a quote she doesn't love to share and her writing demonstrates her desire to be perceived as intellectual. Nevertheless, I'd recommend the Brown book to a rock. I'll likely never buy my own copy of Rubin's book, even thought I'd give it 3.5/5 stars. 
When I tease out the differences in the three, I realize that it matters deeply to me that both Sara Miles and BrenĂ© Brown are presenting their stories and information from a place of faith. It happens to be a faith I share with them, but the place of faith also matters. As they express the desire for self-care, the effort to make progress, the wholeness of living boldly, they both explain directly and indirectly that such a life is possible through God. You can't reflect on your own being without being grounded in something other than yourself and without growing out beyond your own boundaries. 
Rubin's work, though very interesting to me, doesn't go anywhere. It comes from herself, her efforts, her surroundings. Even her efforts with other people, which do benefit them, are rooted in a desire for self improvement. 
Contrast this with Miles and Brown whose lives, as I read them, are gifts from God. Their efforts to appreciate the gift and to live into it with love resonate with me. The reason to care for one's self so that one can authentically care for others is, to me, a deep truth. The well of this truth is Living Water, not a stagnant reflecting pool. 
I realize this seems very harsh to Gretchen Rubin, which is not what I meant to be. I did like both her books and there are ideas she offers that I have adapted into my own life for myself and my family. Still, reading her book in close proximity to these other two just made her words sound hollow and self-referential. The locus of my identity isn't myself. It is who I am as a baptized child of God. Brown and Miles get that and it informs how they see the world around them. It's really hard to explain a 3D movie to someone who doesn't have the glasses. 

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