My life is not where I thought it would be. It’s 2019. I’m 29, so far from my dream of marriage and kids that it’s laughable, have no idea what I’m doing while having distinct desires for what I want, and moving back in with my parents. The last one I think is just God laughing at me. Never in a million years did I imagine myself financially independent and moving back into my parents’ house.
I’m probably being dramatic. I have clinical in my hometown this semester, so I am crashing with my parents about 3 days a week. It’s not exactly moving back home, but the chasm between my reality and my dreams are so far that I truly have no idea how my life is going to work out. I have no clue. Not one. The clues I did have were like Legos that were smattered apart with sledgehammer, and all I have are these pieces of pieces that will come together into something beautiful. God willing.
I was praying like a pubescent teenager the other day. I was frustrated because I needed to drive 4 hours to a 2-hour orientation class for a clinical placement I did not want to have, and it was snowing. People in Wisconsin forget how to drive when there is snow, even when it does not stick to the ground. I was beyond frustration when I arrived. Then everyone else in the student orientation class was so nice and grateful to be there. I don’t know if they were seeing patients in caves previously or what because I was on the brink of punching the lady behind me who commented on every thing that Epic (an electronic charting system) had that she had never seen before.
I left the day with an even worse attitude, grumbling as I drove and now feeling guilty for not being grateful as the other students. And I realized I’ve been here before. I’ve been to this uncomfortable, frustrating interior place before. It was 2014, and I was a travel nurse.
Travel nursing was one of the hardest and most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I had to learn what trust in uncertainty looked like, learn how to wait for my life to come together, learn doing what others expect and want of me is like chasing a mirage, and learn how to deal with the loneliness. God shook me from a calculated person to someone open to spontaneity. He showed me the broken spots in my heart. I learned forgiveness. I learned I am much more capable and adaptive than I give myself credit for.
As I reflect on that time over and over again, I have learned that I need to stay true to myself and embrace where I am. I need to let go of my expectations for what life should be and accept it as it is. I need to recognize my self-rejection, bitterness, frustration, anger, and doubt, and come into my father’s house.
I am tired of acting like an orphan. My parents are thrilled to have me home, and they are being so kind and respectful of my freedom. I know my spiritual Father is the same with even more crazy, unconditional love. I am tired of acting like an orphan. I want to come home.
One of the most insightful spiritual books I have ever read is Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. In it, he discusses how we are all three characters in the book: the younger son, the elder son, and the father. As the middle child, it is easy for me to identify with both sons. I have been both sons, but I find myself acting like the elder son, complaining, whining, wallowing. So, I have been reflecting on him and how I act like him.
“Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”
The elder son captures my frustrations perfectly. As he says, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.” I feel you, brother.
Mine goes something like this: Jesus, can’t you see I’ve been following you for ages? Can’t you see that I’ve been praying for a husband and family for near a decade? Can’t you see I am taking the leap of faith by being in this program so I can love my future family better? Can’t you see I am struggling out here? Can’t you see I am doing my best to lead a faith-filled life? Can’t you see I’ve been left behind repeatedly while my friends are getting married and having babies? Can’t you see I’m tired? Can’t you see me? Do you even care?
The Father clearly cares. He left a party he is hosting with a sone whom he loves unconditionally to come out into the field and address his other son. Just like in the earlier story in Luke 15 about the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to come after the 1 lost one, the Father leaves his numerous guests to talk to his prodigal elder son.
The Father’s response is so tender. “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.” The Father could have commanded the son to come in, and he would have done it. If Jesus commanded me to get over myself, I would. But the Father didn’t, and He isn’t. Instead, He is coming out to me, finding me in my hurt, and meeting me there.
I know the way to come home for the elder son is trust and gratitude. For years, I have been giving Jesus what I think are trust and gratitude. But I always have a Plan B when I think God is not going to provide, and I always have an ache for something more even when I profess gratitude. I have realized lately, I don’t trust Jesus with the child-like trust He asks for. I have also realized, I’m really not that grateful. I always can imagine better and more. How ungrateful and painful is that!
I cannot give Jesus trust and gratitude, which is what I know I need to come home. The most heart-wrenching thing is that I know Jesus is not asking me for my trust and gratitude. Not yet, at least. All that He is asking for right now is my forgiveness.
When I was traveling, there was a weekend that I was in New York City, visiting my travel nurse friend. I was profoundly unhappy with where my life was, and nothing I was doing to distract myself from it was making my happy. After another unsatisfactory night out, I woke up earlier than she did and went to Sunday Mass at the beautiful St. Ignatius of Loyola Church on the Upper East side of Manhattan. (It was the closest to her place. Little did I know how much I would come to love St. Ignatius!)
I distinctly remember kneeling and praying the familiar words before receiving the Eucharist, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.” It was then I heard Christ ask me, “Marissa, do you forgive me?” I debated with Him. There was no reason Jesus needs my forgiveness because He is God and perfect and forgiveness. Why would He ask me that? Was that even Him asking that?
But He asked again, “Marissa, do you forgive me?” As I would learn later, Dr. Robert Enright who pioneered the psychological study of forgiveness, forgiveness is a “forgoing to resentment.” Jesus was not asking to be forgiven because He had made a mistake. Jesus was asking for me to let go of my resentment of Him and come home. That day of saying “yes” was the start of a great healing in my heart.
And I feel myself at the same spiritual spot again. Instead of being the prodigal younger son, I am the prodigal elder son. As Nouwen explained in The Return of the Prodigal Son, “I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.” I am searching for God’s unconditional love in the dreams I have for my life all while forgetting His unconditional love is present in the imperfect life I already have.
What it boils down to is that I am refusing to let go of my grievances because I do not know what I’ll have left if I let go of my anger. All I will have is broken dreams like smattered Lego pieces that I have no idea how to fit together. If I let go, I will have nothing left.
But having nothing left is a beautiful thing. Having nothing left is what inspired the prodigal younger son to come home. Having no grievance left is what prodigal elder son needs to come home. After airing out all my numerous grievances to God, He asked me once again, “Marissa, do you forgive me?”
Yes, Lord, and wherever I do not, I want to.
I want to come home. I want to see goodness where I feel bitterness. I want joy where I feel pain. I want peace where I feel uncertainty. I want to belong where I feel disconnected. As hard and humbling as it will be, I want to come home.
Coming home was all I wanted when I was traveling. If only I had known that coming home was feeling whole within myself again, I would have stopped looking in so many other places. When I traveled, I looked for that unconditional love of God in so many other places. It was the weirdest, craziest, most uncertain, spontaneous, unexpected, roughest, most tear-filled, scary, and best year. I compare myself from beginning to end and still cannot believe all the good God had done in that short span.
This feels familiar. This ache, this frustration, this falling apart of everything I had planned and built up and hoped for feels familiar. This feels like the beginning of my travel nurse year. This feels like the start of an adventure.
When I was a travel nurse, I had this constant feeling of uncertainty. It was the nature of it, I suppose. At times, that uncertainty was exciting and invigorating. At others, it was filled me with dread. But not matter what, there was a sense of the unknown, and it made me certain I was on an adventure.
I never thought when I stopped traveling that I’d ever live at home with my parents again. I never thought I’d spend so much time in the car again that I’d need to find that iTrip I lost ages ago. I never thought I would have no idea what I’m doing again.
But here I am.
2019 is nothing like I pictured it to be. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s all very uncertain.
And this time around, I do not want to waste 6 months creating my own adventure. I lived Connecticut lived I wanted to travel. I lived California how God wanted me to travel, and California was so much more enjoyable. I want to live this year without a plan, without an agenda, without a back-up plan. God is my Plan A, so why would I need anything else? Maybe my life is not where I want it, but that’s probably a very good thing. That means there’s something better coming, and I do not want to waste the beautiful thing that is to come.
In the past few days, I have realized how much I want to come home. I have realized how much I want to live the life He is designing for me instead of designing my own life when His dreams do not fit my plans. I have realized I want to surrender more than I want to control. And that right here is some frickin’ growth.
In surrender, I have realized my helplessness, my humility. I suppose the father in the story of the prodigal son felt the same when when his sons refused to come home. He could do nothing but offer his love, which he knew needed to be freely received. No argument was going to convince them. Both needed a conversion of their own.
And I need a conversion. I was reading in my library of Dr. Brené Brown books, looking for a good definition of belonging. I was searching for her book The Gifts of Imperfection, but I forgot I had lent it out to a friend. Instead, I revisited Braving the Wilderness. I was really struck by her analysis of the three outcomes of suffering:
- You live in constant pain and seek relief by numbing it and/or inflicting it on others;
- You deny your pain, and your denial ensures that you pass it on to those around you and down to your children; or
- You find the courage to own the pain and develop a level of empathy and compassion for yourself and others that allows you to spot hurt in the world in a unique way.
– Dr. Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness
Dang. Does that not sound like the three characters in the story of the prodigal son?
- The younger son lives his suffering by wasting his money on parties and prostitutes, trying to run away from his hurt all the while ignoring the joy and belonging that could be his at home.
- The elder son lives his suffering by begrudgingly remaining at his father’s house, trying to bury his hurt all the while never receiving the gifts in front of him and never receiving the sense of joy and belonging that is right in front of him.
- The father lives his suffering as he sees his children ignore his love, but as much as he would love to protect them and shower them with love, he knows they cannot receive it. In compassion to himself, he gives all that he can to his sons and hopes they will come home to a sense of joy and belonging with him.
If I am going to suffer (which I am; we all are, because that is the human condition), I want to suffer well. If I am going to be wife and mother, I want to suffer in a way that helps rather than hurts the ones I love. I want to suffer like the Father instead of a prodigal daughter. I want to suffer better. I want to love better.
The love of the Father is not easy to live out. Rather, it is humbling because you can love and care all you want, but ultimately, love needs to be received. Forced love is not love, and love given freely is a gift worth waiting for. For love to be love, it must be given and received freely.
As Henri Nouwen wrote in The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming of the father:
“[His love] cannot force, constrain, push, or pull. It offers the freedom to reject that love or to love in return. It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering. God, the creator of heaven and earth, has chose to be, first and foremost, a Father.
As Father, he wants his children to be free, to be free to love. That freedom includes the possibility of their leaving home, going to a “distant country,” and losing everything. The Father’s heart knows all the pain that will come from that choice, but his love makes him powerless to prevent it. As Father, he desires that those who stay at home enjoy his presence and experience his affection. But again, he wants only to offer a love that can freely be received…he cannot make them love him without losing his true fatherhood.
– Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming
I have realized that I cannot do much right now. However, I can choose my attitude. I want to come home more than I want to be bitter. So, I’m doing two things:
- I’m learning forgiveness.
I read a synopsis of Dr. Robert Enright’s work when traveling, and it was really helpful. I’m revisiting his work again, this time in his book, Forgiveness is A Choice. He offers a step-by-step process to let go of anger, resentment, and bitterness. I want to forgive Jesus for not giving me the life I think I wanted at this moment. I want to be grateful for the life I do have, and trust in His divine providence for the future. I need to learn forgiveness.
- I’m going to therapy.
Since my first year of graduate school, I have known that my campus offers free counseling services. I’ve just never seen the personal utility of it. It still might not be all that useful, but I can only analyze myself so much. I need an outside individual to assess my coping skills. If I can develop a better coping strategy, I want to. I do not know everything, so I think it’s time to go to a professional who does. And it’s free. And I can schedule it on days where I have class on campus. And I think it’s about dang time I at least see what this thing is that I talk up and suggest to patients and people all the time.
And then, Brené Brown got me again:
“Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
– Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, emphasis added
If I want to come home and experience a greater sense of belonging, I first need to belong to myself. I can only do so much. And I think it’s time to assess myself with a professional to see if I can do more. Plus, when else is it going to be free and convenient?
2019 feels familiar. This ache, this frustration, this falling apart of everything I had planned and built up and hoped for feels familiar. This feels like the beginning of my travel nurse year. This feels like the start of an adventure.
2019 is going to be hard. It’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s all very uncertain. And it’s nothing like I pictured. But I am certain this year will be an adventure, and that’s a beautiful thing.