New Year, Refining Me

2023 started with a bang. Everything we knew had been shattered. Years of questions that had piled finally strained the camel’s back to breaking. Everything my wife and I felt comfortable in for years was suddenly very foreign and frightening. But it was all good.

2023 was a year where my wife and I were able to look at and examine many of the parts that make up who we are— together and individually. Religion, faith, relationships, boundaries, desires, politics, beliefs, and even gender.

Why do we believe what we do? How much of what we believe is truly of ourselves? If we’re so right, why are other people okay with believing other things? God hasn’t smitten them. If anything, they seem to be prospering. They seem to have the happiness and joy I was promised but lack.

Starting the year by learning that a lot of the “bad people” we had been told were external to our bubble were actually hanging out in our camp (mostly those in authority), everything shattered and all these and other questions came tumbling down. Every single part of what made me and Moriah up, everything that had formed us, every piece of material someone in authority had told us was one thing, had been torn open and needed to be searched, disassembled, and deconstructed. After all, if the people who shaped our worldview got whole parts of our belief structure wrong, what else was wrong?

As I dove deeper into what made me tick, it turned out that a lot of what was at the core of “us” was wrapped in or founded on fear. Fear of judgement. Fear of losing people. Fear of people judging us. Fear of going to hell. Fear of doing the wrong thing. Fear of understanding things the wrong way. Fear of doing the right thing at the wrong time. Fear of the unknown. Fear of being known and rejected. Fear that “others” (beliefs, people) would come in and wreck things. Fear that we would lose the culture! Fears that kept us in our comfort zone and afraid to move beyond.

Discovering that the leaders and institutions, of whom we trusted for moral guidance, were not just the ones pedaling these fears, but also were actively wrong in so many other ways, made us wonder if the God they told us about was real. If the country we were told to love was real. If all the homosexuals really were evil. If the people around us loved us for us, or just because we followed the rules so well.

Reaffirming my conviction, bringing these questions and observations up to others has them respond with fear. I’m met with “have you been praying?” “Have you been reading the Bible?” “I hope you’re right about all this…” I’ve done all the “right things,” and all I’ve been left with is burn out and more questions. Questions that led to more questions and more discovery. And after a bit, I had disassembled a lot of my beliefs, my comforts, my morals, my politics, my preconceptions… everything, and I was very much without an identity. A nomad, wandering through the wilderness. Almost starting from scratch. Not feeling at home anywhere, finding it hard to identify with and trust the institutions I grew up feeling comfort and belonging in.

This was overwhelming. It IS overwhelming. Incredibly overwhelming. And it’s barely just started. It brought on depression and rocky conversations between me and Moriah. Good things felt empty, supposed highlights of life tasted bland. It was something that, try as I might, couldn’t be ignored, and couldn’t be run away from.

But all of this just revealed what was already true: I had no personal identity. In a weird way, this brought some comfort: finding one’s self and one’s beliefs is what growing up is all about. And knowing that Moriah and I were 2,400 miles away from our comforts, literally having a “desert experience,” did bring some balm to my soul. This is the adventure, and we are supposed to be here.

God brought us out and away from everyone else. I’m 100% certain about that. Because of that, I have 100% confidence that the journey Moriah and I are on right now is something he’s permitted… and we can’t ever go too far from his grasp.

I didn’t know who I was, but I was finally sure about where I was. Lost, in a desert, finding who I was.

Knowing this revealed another thing about me, more on the creative side: all my efforts to create stuff were for other people. Like, I was making videos because “that’s what I did.” I took pictures because I was good at it. I coded in my spare time to keep me competitive against… the world? And hey… these aren’t inherently bad things.

But in this case I was pulling from a well that was dry, trained to give of myself because that’s “just the right thing to do.” Grinding away because that was my role. Doing it alone because… well, I was the only “part of the body” that could do it! I wrapped my identity in my capabilities, which led to burnout in a lot of areas. I’m definitely not the only one who’s felt this, either.

If I wanted to do the things I loved, I needed to learn how to enjoy things, how to make things for me. I don’t see how I can learn, grow, and thrive if all I did was make stuff for others. And don’t get me started on social media… I can’t work for an algorithm, competing for attention against millions of other people. I can’t let the fact that “what I’ve made has probably been done before” define what I do. I can’t make something because it’s just what I do. It’s exhausting. And plus, I don’t know what I actually like.

Okay, so for this year I want to refine me. Not make a “new” me. Because of all of the above, I’m trying to not focus on surface level goals, like making 5 short films, losing 30lbs, spending only 2 days a week on social media, etc., because it’s “the right thing to do.”

Instead, I’m going to try and focus on the parts of me below the surface. The parts that make me tick. The parts that will make me want to make short films and, as a result, spend less time on social media. I want to find the spark, instead of working to keep the spark from long ago protected and alive. I need to let that go, and let go of the idea that I am what I make.

Instead, I should seek answers to these questions: what do I like? What do I want to make? What do I need? Ultimately, who am I? I feel like once I know those answers, I’ll be able to contribute to the world in meaningful ways.

In the depths of the identity crisis, it was easy to fall into cynicism. There was a lot of pessimism. A lot of anger. There still is! But, as good as it was to let those feelings happen, wallowing in them led to depression and extracted energy. I want 2024 to be different.

We’re tired. We’re empty. We’re lonely. But we are far from the only ones (just listen to Half Alive, AJR, Gungor, Jess Ray…). So for this next year we want to be the change we want to see… and a lot of that change starts in the heart.

Obsidian CEO Steph Ango wrote it best in his blog post, which you can read here. I want to choose to be an optimist:

The life of a pessimist is easy but dreary. The life of an optimist is hard but exciting. Pessimism is easy because it costs nothing. Optimism is hard because it must be constantly reaffirmed. In the face of a hostile, cynical world, it takes effort to show that positivity has merit.

Steph Ango

I want to add something to this: I don’t want to be a blind optimist, thinking the world is better than it really is. I’ve been that before, and I’m pretty sure that’s what led me to being more pessimistic: I looked to reaffirm my conviction but came away hurt and isolated.

Instead, I want the negativity of the world to influence my optimism: in the face of how bad everything can be (and is), if it weren’t for all the good that, as being a part of Creation and an Image Bearer, is embedded in each and every single person, the world would be far worse. It is the relentless pursuit of those choosing to do good that brings hope and light to others.

So like, all of this is a lot, right?

There’s a balancing act to be had in validating the anger and frustration I have, while not wallowing in it, while acknowledging it sucks, while appreciating the process. It’s a lot to hold at once. I’m nowhere near finished either. But if I’ve learned anything in this whole process, it’s that even if I break the rules, go outside my comfort zone, or deconstruct everything, I’m learning who I am, and I’m finding who my people are. I’m confronting my fears.

The new year is supposed to bring in the new and replace the old. But a new year isn’t truly the start of something new, it’s another day like any other. Just as important as the day before it and the day to come. Incrementing the number on a year doesn’t really change anything, and waiting for a new year to start can result in a lot of lost time. Just because the year went the way it did, and there were days upon weeks upon months where “nothing happened,” doesn’t mean everything was lost.

I want 2024 to be a year where I continue examining myself, where I set boundaries on things that control me, where I fight pessimism, where I reject fear, and where I find out who I am. More importantly, I want my heart to be softened and more empathetic. We’re all struggling. I want to run towards people who need love and care rather than being afraid I’m messing with some sort of divine punishment, making sure everything is on the up-and-up, or that the person is following the rules (like, if they broke the rules, they get what they deserve, right?). Just like anything else good, it will take active effort, patience, and help from others.

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