This morning, as I was working on our Sunday School lesson for next week – all about fear – I went looking, as I often do, to the work of some people I trust.
One of those writers is Sarah Bessey, a Canadian author, speaker, podcaster, and more, who caught my eye recently with her post on “Personal Policies.”
In it, she unapologetically declared as one of her policies, “I don’t watch scary or traumatic or violent movies or shows.” And she explained why, that she knows her limits, that she has a tender heart, that this stuff just isn’t for her. It was the first time in a long time I’ve seen someone declare her boundaries so clearly, thoughtfully, and firmly.
I immediately showed it to my sister, to explain why I am not now and never will be watching Squid Games with her. And why, given the choice, I will almost always choose HGTV or a Food Network show to wind down on a weeknight.
It made us laugh, and (I want to think) helped her understand me, but that post was important for an even bigger reason.
In that post, Sarah also reminded me of one of my favorite quotes by the poet Mary Oliver: “Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
To this I would add: “and need what it needs, and feel what it feels.”
I think I’ve always had a hard time doing this, as someone who likes to please people, and as a woman (yes, this is something particularly insidious in what women are taught: your needs come last). As someone who always felt a little more serious and a little older than my age might warrant: let the soft animal of my body love what it loves?? But it loves being at home, and spending time with my dog, and baking. It really doesn’t love being out late, or fussing over my hair, or getting dressed up to go meet new people – and aren’t those things it should love, I should love? As a twenty-something, or a thirty-something?
But these days, it feels even harder to let my body love what it loves, and need what it needs, and feel what it feels.
These days, as someone who is vaccinated and not immuno-compromised, I feel even more than usual the pressure of the “shoulds.” I should be going out more and doing all of the things I couldn’t over the last year and a half of COVID. I should be glad things are opening up, and church is busy and full again, and my schedule is crammed. I should be grateful, I should be happy, I should, I should, I should.
As a wise person once told me, it’s easy to “should” all over yourself.
And I was, for the past few weeks.
I was paying attention to all of those “shoulds,” and packing my days full of meetings and gatherings and visits and groups and calls and errands. I was trying to make it all work, to say “yes” to all the things that were happening now that things were opening up again, to juggle everything I needed to do and thought I should do.
Which is a dangerous game to play, as I found out last Sunday, laying awake with panic in my chest late at night.
All those “shoulds” had got me only to a sleepless night, and high anxiety, and feeling stretched thin and frail.
So this weekend, I tried something else; I tried letting the soft animal of my body need what it needed, and feel what it felt.
I said “no” to several gatherings, and celebrations. It was hard. I hated it. But I knew my body needed rest, and quiet, and a day where I wasn’t clenched tight from driving places and running late and sitting in traffic. So I slept, and I baked, and I snuggled my dog. I watched a mystery show with my sister, and I bought craft supplies for Halloween costumes. I allowed myself to feel tired and weak, but also cared for and protected.
And, come Sunday morning, I felt like I could breathe again.
Like I could let my body need what it needed, and love what it loved, and still have the strength to do what needed to be done. To show up for my community, and show up well.
Upon reflection, what strikes me about all this is I would never teach someone else not to let their body love what it loves. That I would proclaim, over and over again, that God made you in God’s own image, and that includes what your body loves and what it doesn’t. That this is part of the unique stamp of the divine on you, something to be embraced and appreciated.
It’s easy to let myself forget this lesson. But I know now where that leads.
So this week, I encourage you to reflect on it, too. To ask your body: what do you love? What do you need? What do you feel? And to create space for all of those things. Sacred space.