2016 took my breath away. Often this felt like when I was at summer camp in seventh grade and while playing a game I slipped and fell in the red, Alabama mud and got the wind knocked out of me. In immense pain and embarrassed I pretended to be okay. When I stop and think about this year I feel beat up by life.
The first six months of this year were defined by sleepless nights, anxiety attacks, and barely being able to function. There were mornings when it took every bit of bravery and strength I had to leave my house and go to work. I struggled with confidence, identity, to put words together and make coherent sentences. When I was talking to people it was like all the gears in my brain were turning furiously, but that nothing was connecting. I was an exhausted, empty shell constantly about two breaths away from breaking down. It scared me. It made my friends and colleagues worried. When I think about the first half of this year it seems like there was a darkness that settled over it.
Then there were the larger issues, the ones beyond me. A close family friend and a few other people I knew died tragically and far too young. The largest mass shooting in American history happened in my hometown. And the terrorist attacks. So many of my friends here are Muslim. They are wonderful, kind, generous, and peace-loving. The terrorist attacks feel personal because I know that it affects the perceptions people have of my friends. The world felt like a very evil place this year.
A quote from one of my teammates that has stuck with me is, “Life is hard on faith. Life is hard on hope.” This year I have had to white-knuckle faith, to hold on hard to hope and refuse to let go. I have fought with God. I have doubted his goodness as well as the goodness of his commands when I wanted to go my own way instead of following him. I am an expert pouter when I don’t get what I want, and this year I really wanted something and didn’t get it because of actively choosing to follow Jesus’ commands instead of doing what I wanted to do. So naturally, I threw a fit. Actually, I threw many fits over the course of several months. There were moments that instead of holding on to faith I wanted to run away. But, God’s patient love drew me back in. This love that refuses to let me go even in my wandering, even when I am consumed with doubt and accusations about God not working in my best interests, this love held me fast. Following Jesus this year has been difficult and messy, full of struggle and failure and sin. God has made it clear that he is after my whole heart and will use any means necessary to bring me to himself. I haven’t felt like a “good Christian.” Life has been far more complicated than I imagined it could be. I have struggled in ways I never anticipated. Even so, following Jesus has been worth it.
A few days ago one of my roommates and I were talking about 2016, how hard it was for both of us, and how ready we are for it to be over. I feel more than a little worn out by all the living. But then there have also been the moments that took my breath away with their beauty, the ones that have made me sit back in wonder with how life could be so good. Even in during the hard times, this year was peppered with times where my heart has felt so full and happy that I think it might burst and I asked myself how I got so lucky. So instead of continuing down the path of complaining about all of the hard things in 2016 we spent time writing down all of the good things about the year. We ended up with a long list of personal victories, life lessons, and undeserved blessings.
The second half of this year was also challenging, but instead of struggling to keep moving forward, in many ways I thrived. Once I started marathon training again, I started sleeping and that helped everything else get better too. Work was rewarding instead of soul crushing (full-time language learning can suck the life out of you). I was able to get more involved in the community, asked to be on the board of directors for a nonprofit that fits what I want to do really well, and even had two public speaking opportunities in the language that I have spent so much time and energy learning. It feels so nice to feel like I’m actually doing something instead of only going to class and also that all of my time in class has paid off.
Kenya is a gorgeous country and I got to experience it through camping, day hikes, safaris and a beach trip. Friends and family came to visit me, to see my new home and meet my new people. I had some absolutely perfect days here.
Some of the most beautiful things that I have experienced this year have been relationships. My life has been messy and I have needed the support of community more than I ever did when I was in the US. I have made friends who have held me as I have wept and comforted me during my anxiety attacks, friends who have taken care of me and taken me to the hospital during the times I have been really sick, friends who have rejoiced with me in victories of this year, friends who love me well and believe in me. With the confidence that was restored in part through people loving me well, I learned to stand stand up for myself when people treated me poorly.
I got to go back to the US for the first time in a year and a half living overseas. I saw family, beat my marathon time by over 20 minutes, went to Disney, saw a dear friend get married, and watched the UF homecoming game and Air Force/Army. I met up with a couple of friends that I made in Kenya that have since moved back to the US for school. One of them whom I had opened up to about the anxiety and other issues I was having said that I seemed a lot happier now. I am, and I’m glad that other people can see that too.
I am hoping and praying for a 2017 that is easier and less heartbreaking than 2016 was. I am looking forward with anticipation to the next year, knowing that God has good things in store for me. I know that next year will come with it’s own unexpected challenges. The life I have chosen is difficult. Yet, I wait in hopeful expectation that the God who makes all things beautiful in his timing, who knows my heart, fears, and deepest desires, will continue to meet my needs and lead me gently even during the days when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Wishing you the happiest New Year,
Song recommendation: I listened to John Mark McMillan’s “Seen a Darkness” so many times this year. It was comforting and I related so much to it. Particularly, to the lines “The valley of the shadow knows our name. We have seen the night but we have seen the day.” and later, “You have called us loved and you have called us wanted. At one time we were bruised, we were bankrupt and haunted.”