I arrived at the crisis center for my weekly volunteer slot juggling coffee, a bottle of water, a bag with my laptop, and other things I didn’t really need but can’t be without. Mina was waiting for me, beaming as usual.
“This is me,” she said. “This is my real shape, my real body. If I ever come in here and I don’t look like this, something is wrong. Because this right here, is me.” I'd been mentoring Mina for a few months. I knew the grittiest pieces of her past, but little else. I had learned she is the mother to two children whom she hasn’t seen for years. I knew she’d been sleeping on a bunk bed in a domestic violence shelter down the road. I knew when the cops found her a few previously, she was wandering the street with a broken leg. The doctor had said the fracture was weeks old at that point. Mina hadn’t a clue how it happened. I knew that every morning, Mina turns on worship music and “worships with her tears.” Pain brought Mina there. Pain brings every woman there.
Mina’s body was recovering from substances I can’t name because she doesn’t share the details, and I’m fine with that. I’d been witnessing her transformation every Tuesday, but that day, she wasn’t looking at how far she’d come. She wasn’t rattling a plethora of plans or goals she aspired to reach. Mina was paying attention. She was naming her exact spot on the recovery timeline, recognizing the curvier body that feels more familiar. Her body was finding its balance, its home base, and she was content to be right where she was. In fact, she was delighted.
I know about homeostasis. After years of growing babies and raising little kids, my body was recovering too, finding a place that felt natural and best suited for the demands of the season and age. But unlike Mina, I was less than delighted.
Do we really find transcendence in striving?
My background isn’t social work. It isn’t psychology either, but seven years working at a gym taught me plenty about the mind and human behavior, health as wellness, and health as an obsession. For a few years, I coached members in the weight loss program. During my training, the program director said—privately, of course—the members didn’t really need a program, they needed a therapist. I thought she was mean, but it turns out, she was just telling it like it was.
Once a week, I weighed in members of the program, listening as they gave their identity away to a number. When the number was “good,” they reached forward, declaring what more they would do to get their hands on victory. When the number was “bad,” they reached back, clutched versions of their younger selves and the bodies they had before kids, before stress, before age. People say all manner of things when they’re standing on a scale. Good day or bad day, very few are willing to say, “This is me.”
Years later, I still struggle to release the beliefs of a culture that say transcendence is achieved through constant striving and lists of goals. It’s the scale, it’s my level of education, it’s whether or not I’m truly fulfilling my purpose, and whether or not my kids are doing the same. Feeling situated in my own body is a challenge, always has been, even before the gym. Acceptance feels like complacency, and I’m tempted to resist it. I’m tempted to scramble for solutions that will make me good or better than good. More things to do, more to know, more to be—anything but accepting who I am or who I’m not.
I’m reminded of the rich man in Matthew 19. Having kept the six hundred Jewish rules of his day, he was good enough. But why be good when there’s more to become? The rich man asks Jesus, “What else?” and Jesus calls out the motive behind the question. The man’s straining and reaching for better isn’t a desire for obedience, it’s a desire for perfection—the desire to transcend human nature and human need, past the point of needing God.
I know that feeling. There are days when I’m convinced the work of faithfulness should’ve brought me further along. I’ve asked my share of, “What else?” Jesus answers with gentleness, says the threshold of perfection is crossed when I am holding nothing, when I have peeled away the proof of good, better, perfect, when I have chosen to give it all away. True obedience means open hands, trusting him with nothing to hold. The answer sounds uncomfortable. Empty hands? No, thank you. Some days, I walk away sad.
But here’s Mina, composed and confident. She has no ID, no car, no place to call her own. Last week, she told me that when she’s alone and anxious, she sucks her thumb. She’s seen the darkness and she suffers from nightmares, so sleeps with her open Bible on the pillow beside her. Her hands aren’t empty, she’s holding promises. Her stride is steady, even on a broken leg.
Her honesty about her imperfections and fears refresh places in me I didn’t know were depleted. In circles where Jesus is not the answer, Mina’s honesty would be touted as the secret to transformation, but she knows better and so do I. So do the countless women with hard circumstances who come to the center. Transformation is an ugly process, a long road of fear and trembling, practice and failure. Many will begin the walk, but honesty won’t keep them on the narrow road. Humility will.
Humility is the only way.
Humility allows us to accept redemption. It allows us to stand in the light of God’s grace, exposed and composed, with nothing to prove. Humility allows us to accept our shortcomings, accept what’s lost, what’s unfair, what is and what isn’t, so that in hope, we can expect good things. Better things. Things that last. Hope knows there’s more than can be seen and faith will make it visible.
Thomas Merton writes, “The man who is not afraid to admit everything that he sees to be wrong with himself, and yet recognizes that he may be the object of God’s love precisely because of his shortcomings, can begin to be sincere. His sincerity is based on confidence, not in his illusions about himself, but in the endless, unfailing mercy of God.” Without his endless mercy, the power to trust God beyond my physical senses and human limits is out of reach. The frenzy of “what else” overrides the steady hustle of choosing diligence, choosing it the next day, and the next.
Sincerity is the confident hope of being settled without settling. I wish I would have known to say this to people on the scale. It might have provided a little comfort, but I’m not certain they would have accepted it. It took a while before I could accept it.
During Mina’s last session, she gushed about her job and the apartment waiting for her in the city. She’d contacted her daughter and there was a possibility she’d come out to stay. They’d build a new life together. I prayed with her and read from Psalms. I watched a calm come over her as she listened to familiar words from a different translation, as if her heart whispers had a new language. I gave her my Bible for keeps, told her to keep it open because even good things get heavy, but more of him is peace. Always.
Cover image by Mikel Parera.