When crisis strips away our normal roles - job, parent, spouse - what is left?
Have you ever had your life turned upside down? Where you were suddenly and unexpectedly stripped of the things that seemed to make you, you?
I was just speaking with a woman from California. Susan is an engaging, highly educated sixty-six year old who is all warmth and kindness. She has three adult children, loves to garden, and spent the last 35 years working in healthcare. Her retirement was looming. Out of no where, she suddenly realized she was afraid.
She didn't know who she would be when she wasn't taking care of someone else.
Who am I when I'm not juggling patients? she wondered.
Who am I when I'm no longer in that hum of activity?
When people don't need me?
When I'm no longer in control?
What does it mean to be me?
As I held the space for Susan's questions and fear that day, I felt a very familiar sensation bubble up.
I glanced down at my arms in my lap. I could almost imagine the scars those same questions had left in my own life.
When $#!% Got Real
As some of you may know, I experienced a pretty significant turning point in my life. I was pursuing religious life (read: convent) when I came down with some severe illness. I flew home from Rome in a wheelchair, never to return again.
I spent the next 18 months being shuttled from doctor to doctor. But the more difficult part was being “stripped.” Kelly, the kind-hearted servant, the “holy” one who prayed four hours a day, the dreamer, the passionate one, the achiever— was now bed-ridden most of the time. I was so weak I could hardly move, speak, or think. Who was I when all of those identities were stripped away?
I don’t believe our identities can be distilled into a neat glass jar. “Here’s me! I am one part spiritual seeker, one part curious student, and two parts passionate dreamer.”
We are far more dynamic and nuanced than that.
Words both help and hinder. It’s the same conundrum when speaking about God. Words can tell us what the divine is like, but can never fully encompass his nature. If you think you have understood God, it is not God you have understood. (To paraphrase John of the Cross.)
Might we say the same for us?
Being in One of Those Body-Switching Movies
I feel almost ashamed to admit how long it took me to learn that my identity does not depend on what I do.
I thought I knew this prior to illness... but apparently not well enough. When life turned on a dime, I couldn't do anything. I could not engage in much conversation. I could not focus enough to pray (which was distressing after the rigorous prayer life of the convent!). I did not have the strength to smile, most of the time. Instead, I just was.
This felt incredibly discomfiting. Unless you have experienced something similar, it is difficult to relate the sensation. It’s like one of those movies where the main character wakes up in another person’s body. I felt foreign to myself. Those weak limbs weren't mine. Why wasn't my brain finding words? They seemed to evaporate into the ether, unfinished sentences dangling.
What did this mean? Suddenly I wasn't the buoyant, passionate woman friends knew me to be.
Kelly was quick to laugh! She was sharp, keen, insightful!
Yet now it was all I could do to lie in bed and try not to think.
Who was I? What did it mean to be Kelly when I didn't feel like me?
The answer to this question came from an unexpected place.
Oak Trees Are Better at This Than Me
Nature often teaches me important lessons about life. One such lesson came while pondering an oak tree outside my house. It’s a robust tree that stretches its arms high into the heavens. My life at the time had been filled with a lot of striving.
Striving (verb): the opposite of what a tree does.
We humans are the only ones who can feel angst and anxiety and work SO HARD at doing the opposite of who we’re meant to be. Not so with trees. They are exactly who they are meant to be. And they do so with such effortless authenticity! None of this silly forcing and pushing and stress that typifies the life of the modern human. I’m exhausted just writing these words.
Life is meant to be much more effortless and free-flowing. Learn from the oak tree. My oak does a perfect job of being a tree: it grows, drinks in the sun, turns colors, shed leaves, and eventually dies in accordance with its treeness. When the word “tree” was spoken into existence, everything implied by that word – the firm and flexible trunk, the chlorophylled leaves, the need for water and sun and soil – are part of what it means to be “tree."
What, then, does it mean to be “Kelly”? When you were spoken into existence, what was intended by your name? What was the divine trying to express about himself? And how do I live up to that richly nuanced meaning?
In other words: What does it mean to be authentically (and effortlessly) you?
The divine spoke us each into existence. Have you ever pondered what he is trying to say through your existence? What was he trying to say? What part of himself is he trying to express? Seeing the myriad of people and creatures that exist gives us a peek at the vastness of God. Don’t you find it curious (and not a little hilarious) that the same Being spoke the Dalai Lama, your crabby sister-in-law, and the therizinosaurus into existence? (Look it up: it’s a thing!) What, pray-tell, is he trying to express?
Filling in the God-Speak
I don’t have words to hand over when asked “who is Kelly Deutsch?” The best I can do is live life with you, as authentically as possible. That means being in tune with my deepest desires and subtle movements. It can look different based on my energy levels (amazing how much that affects our behaviors), the environment (I definitely reign in my “weird” at work), or how grounded I am.
My sense of humor is much more rambunctious when I’m with friends who share the same “funny.” My warm tact is in the forefront when I’m presenting to the leadership team at work. My fiery passion blazes when talking about my dreams for wholeness, or for drawing people into a deeper, more authentic life.
I believe all of these connotations were intended when God spoke the world “Kelly” into existence.
Yet even without them—even when I cannot laugh or present or turn to you with fire in my eyes—I know I am good. I am loved. I, like you, am an expression of the divine.
And that is an identity I am excited to live into.
Kelly Deutsch specializes in audacity. Big dreams, fierce desires, restless hearts. When seekers are hungry for unspeakably more, she offers the space to explore contemplative depths and figure out where they fit in the vast spiritual landscape. She speaks and writes about divine intimacy, emotional intelligence, John of the Cross, trauma-informed spiritual practice, and neuropsychology. Kelly offers spiritual direction, coaching, contemplative cohorts, and retreats. She is the bestselling author of Spiritual Wanderlust: The Field Guide to Deep Desire. When she isn’t exploring the interior life, you might find her wandering under Oregonian skies or devouring red curry.