When I was first learning how to belay last fall at my climbing gym, my brain tangled up right alongside the rope in my hands. I was trying to remember each step of the belaying process in a logical “think-y” manner, and it caused me to mess up repeatedly. My face would scrunch up in confusion as my staff member friend, Kandice, patiently waited for me to show her the next step.
It was only when I turned off my thoughts and simply felt the motions of belaying that I was able to get the hang of it. I almost just had to close my eyes so I wouldn’t get distracted by logistics.
“It doesn’t need to be perfect,” the head setter, Andy, told me, as he swung above me, installing a new route. “You just need to save them from falling.”
Just save them from falling.
Once I felt how belaying was supposed to feel and reaffirmed the actual purpose of belaying, the actual goal I was trying to accomplish (save them from falling), that’s when it all started to feel totally natural to me.
What if this is just the way that I operate?
Everything feels so much better when I, more or less, shut off my mind and trust how things feel.
I think this is how I’m supposed to be as a writer too.
I beat my writing half to death in the editing process, because I’m afraid of the natural way I write. I’m afraid of being seen. I’ve written about this previously, in my essay “Letters to you with love from me.” I’m sure this concept has come out many times in my writing before, but I just haven’t grasped onto it yet.
The truth is that, for the most part, I much prefer the things I’ve written that are in my drafts folder or in my notes app. The quick intuitive flashes I get, the mad dashes, the rush of energy from my authentic writer self.
Was this entire life ever really mine? Was my control all an illusion? I think so, but letting go of control isn’t instant and wonderful. Sometimes it gives us rope burns as we slide down trying to hold on like a madman.
—Lisa Gungor, The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen
I’m going to hold on tightly while I’m belaying someone on the wall, but clearly some deeper part of me is asking to trust her and let go when it comes to my writing.
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Title: The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen
Author: Lisa Gungor
Quoted In: Feel the rope
Description: Lisa Gungor and her husband Michael, of the Grammy-nominated band Gungor, unexpectedly exit Christianity and search for meaning, beauty, healing, and answers through a new perspective.
Purchase: Bookshop.org (affiliate link)
That’s how it goes, isn’t it? Parents hand over what they know to the child, and down the line it is handed. But what I have learned is that each life takes it own shape. You can’t control its future or confine it to its beginning, because a springboard is just that—a jumping off point. You had your own beginning, your own hallways to wander and concrete to run down. I often think our decisions and beliefs are simply a matter of personal choice, but it’s never as simple as that. Our assumptions and conclusions are always related to circumstance. Your parents handed down rules, beliefs, and a lens through which you could view the world. Your experiences caused you to accept, reject, or adjust those perspectives and assumptions.
Our stories point to family trees, politics, and religions (the good and the bad or the lack thereof). The circumstances that influence our lives are vast and interconnected with everything and everyone in ways none of us will ever be able to map. I can’t draw lines between dots on paper in order to understand just how I got to this city, this porch, or just how you and I took such different paths.
I will do my best to tell you and anyone else who will listen about the magic that I have learned to see and the really painful things I had to experience to help me see it.
I see this; you see that. Two people can look at the same thing but not see the same thing. One person can look at the color blue and see a deep cobalt hue, another a light sea-foam green. One person can look at a piece of art and see a striking landscape; another sees only blotches and turns on their heel, unimpressed. One person looks out at the ocean and sees thrill and joy while the other sees sharks and drowning.
One looks at a cross and sees redemption and peace—the cross saved them. Another sees this same cross and it embodies violence; it was around the neck of the man who took their innocence in a dark room. One person can look at America and see freedom, the soil where dreams come true—“land of the free, home of the brave!” But maybe a survivor of Hiroshima sees only corruption—this is the country that set their family on fire.
We see things differently because our histories or circumstances give us differing viewpoints. One can look at a child with almond-shaped eyes, small nose, different speech, and see only a syndrome; maybe they see an opportunity for a miracle to happen. Another sees the child as a miracle that already has happened. Reality is one thing to you and another to me, but none of us sees it for what it is. My brain is putting information together without my knowing; it’s filling in gaps, taking that bit of light into my retina, sending signals to my brain, triggering memories and recalling the color I know to be blue. But some people don’t see blue at all.
The journey toward new sight can be equal parts beautiful and all out hell. But it comes to all of us the same—slowly, in moments separating old from new, before from after. Moments that split time or split our very souls, and we suddenly see life as we have never seen it before.
The first few moments that our baby experienced her first breaths, first sights, first time being held in my arms, she was purely perfect. Then in minutes she was given a definition. We were given a lens for viewing her with, and my perspective shifted right at her very start. The definition “Down syndrome” is packed full of emotions, full of ideas that are only ideas, and I was diving headfirst into all of the darkest ones that screamed, “She won’t make it, and you won’t either.”
I know the feeling; we all know it. We want to thrive, live brilliant lives, and experience love that never disappoints or leaves us. We want our differences celebrated, not pushed to the sidelines or discarded. We want to live the human experience with our eyes and hearts open, but it’s often so hurtful we can’t help but close up.
It is the drive in every relationship—will you really see me and love me? But to really see someone, your perspective will bend and shift at some point. To be able to see, we first must realize that all of our constructs are illusions.
I don’t think my parents knew how much it hurt to hear yelling and fights, to cover my ears and hum so I didn’t hear the details. I assumed it was what all parents did—got sick of each other after a while.
My dad had to scoop me up in his arms for us to see eye to eye. He was tall in stature and short in temper.
I relaxed my body, then I stood and jumped high again, closed my eyes so my body could feel the free fall more vividly. We do that as children—close our eyes so our bodies see things.
Songs lingered up in those tree branches. I often felt like the trees had voices of their own. All I had to do was listen.
I revolved between four places—the trampoline, the trees, the piano, the orange chair. To me, that’s all I needed, and there really wasn’t much else in my town anyway.
My Muslim friend across the street prayed before each meal as well. We once tried to save each other, told each other plainly in turn, “You know, you’re going to hell because you believe in the wrong God.” Our debate skills were severely lacking, because it wasn’t even five minutes into the debate that our attention was diverted by making mud pies.
I thought it was odd when my gay friend felt she was delivered from being gay. I wondered how a demon could attach itself to someone, force their attraction to the same sex against their will. I now wonder if she went along with it because she liked this wild church too and just hoped she could stay if she buried parts of who she was. There are things we suppress to be part of a tribe.
Though I loved my tribe, I had small questions about its ideology. But you couldn’t really question authority figures. It was off limits. I think the questions would have implied that this godly authority figure didn’t have all of the answers after all, and if that were true, the gig would be up, structures would collapse, and people would run wild in the streets, because if no one has all the answers, good Lord, what on earth will happen to us?
If you question, you get kicked to the sidelines, treated as a rebel doubter, someone trying to lead everyone astray.
He was wildly adventuresome and cared only about jazz music. I thought that was weirdly charming. The only person I knew who listened to jazz was my grandfather.
I didn’t know going to two churches was a no-no. I found out going to a different place was not only frowned upon but forbidden. I thought going to two places was pretty fun and extra-Christian. I had no idea they would be upset, and I didn’t know a place could own a person. That’s when I learned that some pastors blame other pastors for “stealing their sheep,” and suddenly I felt like I was in some cult.
I thought I actually was doing something wrong and deserved to be punished. I wondered if I was blind. Maybe Michael was one of those wolves in sheep’s clothing I heard so much about. Maybe the hometown tribe was the ultimate authority in my life and I was never supposed to trust myself. Maybe my heart was rotten so I couldn’t see that it was leading me into a terrible place. But my heart felt open. It felt good, so I really wasn’t sure what to do about the letter or my ex-friend or my mother.
After years of entrusting someone else to make your decisions, it can feel dangerous to start making them for yourself.
Was this entire life ever really mine? Was my control all an illusion? I think so, but letting go of control isn’t instant and wonderful. Sometimes it gives us rope burns as we slide down trying to hold on like a madman.
Quoted In: Feel the rope
I’d thought this life was controllable, transactional. I’d bought right in to the illusion because I was a madman too.
We had truth in our hands, certain of everything.
We ran straight toward life like it was an adventuresome line beneath our feet, no longer a confining dot.
As I heard Peter Rollins once say, we don’t know what we believe; it shows up in symptoms.
I never recognized my symptoms: fear, shame, constant need for acceptance. I probably would have told you that I was free and strong. But I remember conversations when sexism was laughed at, when women were treated like issues to be handled. Like in choir rehearsal in Michigan one night, one of the leaders told the women with big breasts to tape them down; men didn’t need to see them wobble about. Everyone laughed. “And if you walk out of your house and you think you look good, gurrrrrl, you better go change!”
The choir roared with laughter. Some of the women said it hurt to tape them, or that theirs bounced no matter what. “Well, then you’ll just have to sit still or sit out.” Everyone laughed again. I remember looking around bewildered; it felt so dehumanizing. You have to sit out because the body you were given moves in “unholy” ways when dancing in church? It seemed like women were cursed with these wonderful things to feed their babies, cursed because they caused men to stumble all over themselves to the extent that women were told to sit out. I wondered whether a guy had ever been told to tape his stuff down.
It is sobering to think back on these early marriage stories and also ones of my childhood and teenage years. I feel they are insignificant—other people have faced worse horrors, so really, I should be quiet and move on. Then I remember how long I carried those stories in shame, how long it took me to realize I didn’t need to carry it. Shame didn’t die until I finally decided to see the oppressive system for what it was and not subject myself to it any longer. My stories were not like many other terrible stories I know. But just how dehumanizing does a thing need to be before you can say it out loud?
It is interesting what humans will subject themselves to because of tribalism or fear of being rejected. We all want to belong somewhere, and we know how the powerful can push.
You know someone is deep in the religious culture when sneaking off to another church is risky.
The pastor talked about love so much that the church we worked at eventually banned his book.
It’s the first time I felt safe enough to doubt what I had been handed, when I could finally look back at the dot I’d come from and name what had happened, name the ideology I’d formed. I was stretching out the line I was walking on ever so slightly, daring to wonder whether my tribe had it right after all. But I was also feeling my cynical heart wrestling with itself. Right when I was finding there was more room for the people I used to disregard, I was judging the people back on my dot and in the fancy church. Right when I found there was more room for science and less room for certainty, I looked down on anyone who wasn’t going through the same religious awakening. I began to praise all that I could see stretching out in front of me while looking behind and judging all of the people dancing and waving their hands in freedom, thinking they were so stuck in shallow theology and feelings.
Colorado is the linchpin of my story. And it’s strange—we all make decisions, ones we think are affecting only our lives. Then later we realize that decisions and marriages and babies all came from that one drive through the snow, that one meet-up for coffee, that one hello on the steps by the payphone. It is sobering how such small things add up.
It is all vapor, really—our entire lives the tiniest blips in the ever-expanding universe. But our decisions are connected. If we had turned back that snowy night, if we hadn’t said yes, I wonder how much of the rest of this story would not have happened. How much was a product of our decisions, and how much was in the cards all along?
But gradually we all began looking at the line stretched out in front of us and decided what we were for instead of what we were against. It became a brave new world where people of faith could do things like swear, drink wine, and come out of the closet. It was a place for everyone to belong.
We believed in the way of Jesus, that it is good and true, but we didn’t believe we’d cornered the market on truth, because we’d begun ripping up that idea in Michigan.
We continued to have parties, handed wine over our red brick wall, handed over rakes and eggs, and at the end of a long day, we’d sit on the front porch until the early hours, doing the small talk that leads to deep conversations. The scary-close conversations where secrets you hide come brimming to the surface, afraid to be seen but just needing someone else to tell you, “I get it. I’ve been there.”
My way of thinking was challenged by every story I heard, every stone of dogma upturned. Denver became the place I dug my hands into earth and saw how it wasn’t so much that I was cultivating it as it was cultivating me. And I thought I had so much wisdom to hand out. Each Sunday night that we gathered, and every time I headed over to Paul’s porch at the end of the day, I found truth was more a thing my tribe didn’t own. I found that love was much bigger than my idea of it.
The great American dream bastardizing the profound story of Love. I realized how often I had abducted the story, how I’d labeled certain things as favor, blessing, transaction. I wondered what the kids I knew in Kenya or the people in Auschwitz called favor. A bread crumb? Death?
God and I weren’t seeing eye to eye. If this were my world, it would be better than this violent dog-eat-dog one here. This one isn’t fair. It doesn’t hand out what is deserved in proper portions. There is too much pain, too much poverty and present hell. How are we to swallow it and not be poisoned? And how am I to swallow the idea that there is a God asking us to just hold on until we die and are freed of this world he created? We just had to keep bailing water out of the boat until the afterlife, but I wanted to jump ship now.
People often ask where the turning point was for us in music. It was once we stopped scraping and trying to get someone, anyone to like our music, once we began creating unafraid of what vulnerability might cost us. We became more honest with the wrestle of life. Once we stopped caring what honesty might mean for our acceptance, that’s when our career changed.
And I am glad for this—this baby was not the final blessing after a bout of suffering. I didn’t see her as the grand revelation of some guy in the sky telling me I had finally learned and now had favor. Learning unattachment was a gift, and the baby, another.
It is during pregnancy and labor that I realize the power of a woman’s body—how it has been thinking, creating, healing without my realizing it, and now I see it fully. My body has been doing this thing, this miraculous human-growing thing that I do not consciously make happen or think into being. It’s just doing it all on its own—intelligent body.
But let’s say our faith was like a sweater. Yarn: our ideology. Weave: our tradition. This is how you wear it. Don’t change it, even if the sweater doesn’t keep you warm anymore. Even if it’s too tight or the threads cut off oxygen at your neck. This is the way. Doubts and questions mean disrespect, and those are the seeds of evil, so just don’t.
But over the years, a thread comes loose and you try to just tuck it in alongside the others. You can cover the fraying up. You can pull the thread and think, Oh, I don’t need this one, because it is harmful to me; it’s itchy and gets caught on corners. It comes out easily. And the sweater stays together. Then you pull another, and another, and soon you find all the yarn is gone. You have deconstructed the entire thing. You are left naked.
We believe, then feel tricked at some point. We believe magic is everywhere because it is everywhere—the soil, the stars, the bugs we dig up in the dirt, and winged things we see in the sky. But then it all begins to feel so normal because we see it every day and busy our lives with looking for other magical things like cancer miraculously disappearing. Our hearts break or someone fails us and the magic gets sucked out.
“I certainly don’t believe in the God who sends his children to scream in the fires of hell just because they weren’t lucky enough to be born to Christians or become Christian before they got laid out flat by a bus.”
It is painful having belief unhinged. I thought I could tinker a bit with the electrical cords to make it all work better, but I suddenly found the entire house had burned to the ground. It makes me wonder about when Jesus talks about the narrow road. This one here feels pretty narrow, this questioning whether I really have it right. Aren’t questions what drives humanity forward? Imagine no one ever doubted that the earth was flat or thought that women might, in fact, be smart enough to vote. Imagine slavery was never questioned. Doubt pushes open the door to change, which opens the door to equality, justice, love, truth. I knew if we never questioned how we did things, we would stagnate, become dead people walking.
“You know, I just can’t be an atheist. I just . . . I can say it, but it’s just words. I have had too many stories up in the trees, had too many mystical experiences. I certainly understand why you have come to the conclusion to be an athiest, but it isn’t my conclusion. I’m not a Christian or an atheist; maybe I’m somewhere in between those, if that space exists.” It had to be the shortest journey of atheism of all time. I didn’t even want to tell any atheists for fear of being ridiculed. And I didn’t want to tell any Christians for fear of the same. I felt like I had no tribe whatsoever. I had no idea where I belonged in the ever expanding world of belief.
Oh, Ruth, you and your hippy beads, calm demeanor, and beautiful flowing hair, what do you know about suffering?
It turned out she knew a lot. It turned out a calm soul isn’t something that just happens. Suffering teaches us. And we learn either to calm or to drown.
If Love or God or whatever I wanted to call it was good, wouldn’t it hold me if I let go?
The words were different; the meaning was the same—open your heart, follow Love. We all come from different parts of the earth. The word for watermelon isn’t the same everywhere. Neither is the word for peace or for spirit or for anything else. How did I ever expect it to be? It’s all this practice that we do to open our hearts, recognize the divine. I thought this practice belonged to one specific group. My entire life I thought my line was the one true line holding all of the truth. But now I found myself with people of all religions, doing things I never thought I would, like crazy synchronized body movements and two-hour meditations—something the people on my dot would say is “opening your mind to Satan himself.” But instead of finding Satan waltzing in and taking over my limbic system, I found love, calming my frantic mind, centering my heart.
I felt it was okay for Michael and me to be on different pages. Life wasn’t about struggling to be on the same page but was about seeing the person. It was about seeing what was right in front of me in all of the cow poop and glorious light.
Quite honestly, we are pretty selfish with our time. We travel a ton, stay up way too late, love to sleep in, and are pretty forgetful—two creative types, not the best combination for a structured household.
I believe there is more than what I can see.
I believe Divine Mother is the ocean and I a drop in a wave, so it doesn’t really matter if I believe in the ocean. I’m in it and of it. And I believe it’s good. I just can’t always see it that way.
I learned quickly there are two kinds of people in the world: winners and losers. I heard sports was supposed to bond people, but I just didn’t see that happening, at least not for me. I knew which category I was in, and it wasn’t the “winners.”
But I found where I belonged in church, not even realizing I was still buying into the winners-and-losers system. It was just the godly version. I got my feeling of belonging from believing I was part of the elite, the ones who had the truth. So everyone else could play sports all they liked; I had the truth of the cosmos in my hands.
The Earth spins, sleeps, then wakes again and asks, “Don’t you see who you are? Don’t you know you are good?”
The “night sea journey” is the journey into the parts of ourselves that are split off, disavowed, unknown, cast out, and exiled to the various subterranean worlds of consciousness. . . . The goal of this journey is to reunite us with ourselves. Such a homecoming can be surprisingly painful, even brutal. In order to undertake it, we must first agree to exile nothing.
One morning I heard music coming from the other room. I could see Michael through the doorway. He was singing and playing the piano. Tears were on Michael’s face, his posture the way posture is when you are worn out all the way through. It felt good to hear him sing, to feel the music wrapping us up. I dragged myself to the sofa while holding Lucie. We let the sound of the piano warm us. We let our sadness spill out.
Maybe we should run to the mountains and live wild and naked, free from bills, etiquette, racism, sexism, ableism, walls of houses, and wifi. The trees don’t live that way, so maybe we should live with them.
It is quite a strange feeling to be on the “inside” all of your life, then suddenly to be out. I wanted to say, “Oh, no, no . . . Look! See? I am a real human with a heart too! I’m running toward truth just like you are. Let me tell you about it on Twitter with 140 characters!”
We can’t see what we can’t see. Sometimes it is because we are trying to scream at each other from different stages of consciousness, like a dot to a line. And sometimes it’s because we just aren’t close enough to see each other. Maybe we should all lean in.
A thought lingered: peace doesn’t come from circumstance.
Raising children can lead you to the tortured state of sleep deprivation and locking yourself in the closet just to relive that long lost memory of personal space. But more so, they pull us to the present.
Was she afraid of this world, wondering where the other part of her had gone?
Rachael goes with me, and tears come as we approach our two houses. So many moments suspended between the two like a tether.
Others can drive by and just see structures, just bricks and mortar, crooked steps. But me—I see stories. And I see myself changing in ways I never knew I would.
I see our marriage bend in places, strengthen in places, aging as we find out what love really is.
I don’t just see houses. I see all of these moments like ghosts lingering about for nostalgia’s sake.
When we dream about our lives, they are often filled with grand ideals—dreams of changing the world, making our remarkably distinct and ingenious imprint on people, maybe even getting a newspaper mention or a plaque or, better yet, an entire banquet with people applauding our impeccable charity and goodwill to all. I’ve wanted that. I’ve wanted everyone to know what a great person I am. What an ego game.
But I’ve found that my life is built on ordinary days of going in and coming out, waking and sleeping, doing dishes, morning coffee, kids playing, running, and leaves turning from green to golden to brown. This is where I’ve found the grandness. This is where I’ve found what I believe about life and where I’ve found myself applauding others instead. It’s in long nights on a good porch, letting the silence sit next to you. It’s in the hard things that hit or the people who teach, giving you eyes to see.
We don’t know what to do with our own weakness but pretend it doesn’t exist . . . How can we welcome fully the weakness of another if we haven’t welcomed our own weakness?
Singing with groups of people is a funny thing when you really think about it—all of us getting together and elongating words with different pitches, specific rhythms. But it had always connected me, grounded me, healed me. I felt like I was rudderless without that weekly rhythm.
A wise woman named Hillary told me there are two parts to trauma. First, we feel the hit, like the impact of a crash. Then our bodies feel the effects long afterward. Maybe I didn’t trust anyone because my body was still trying to protect itself. Every time I saw a man on a stage telling everyone else how to live their lives, I just couldn’t shake the thought, I don’t believe you at all. You’re telling us how to live, but you probably run yourself so ragged you never see your family. You’re probably judging people and screwing someone behind your wife’s back. You probably kicked gay people or your closest friend out of here because their ideas didn’t line up with yours. Harsh, yes. I hated my thoughts. But those thoughts transpired from years of those very experiences.
The flowers didn’t look too concerned about their place in the world. They didn’t strive or have this incredible angst about their existence. I envied them.
You have your own stories, the dramatic and more ordinary moments where what has gone wrong becomes an opening to more of yourself and part of your gift to the world. This is the beginning of wisdom.
New sight didn’t come from someone giving me a summary on how to get through tough times. It came from hitting rock bottom, knowing what suffering is, feeling what love can do, and continuing to let both teach me in the years that followed.
She hugs everyone. Because she sees the magic in everyone, not just in some.
I think understanding the utter magic of our bodies and our existence brings us into who we are meant to be.
The things I thought would crush me became the very things that made me see the world as more magical and vibrant than I ever have.
I see more clearly what Lucie and Amelie are—not something that can be taken away or snuffed out.
“Oh death, where is your sting?”
I understand a bit now because death is part of life. It was never separate from it. Death is not evil in and of itself, and so death cannot take away what Lucie is or will be on the other side of life. I worry less, do more celebrating, more dancing, more star gazing, more magical living.
I still see harsh comments online or receive them right to my face, comments on how we have fallen into the deep end, how we throw the word love around to too many people. And to that I’d say, “Oh, thank you, I’m trying to.”
I also love this scar because it is fitting. Yes, she has lived up to the meaning of her name thus far, but that word “light” alone sounds a little too soft. She is wilder and brighter like a strobe or a floodlight. So an exclamation point seems to go right with her name. It’s “Lucie!”
I’m lucky to have someone around who steals anything of mine, because that means we are still doing life together.
I didn’t just understand that we are all a part of each other; I felt it. It is one thing to understand you have a right arm, but to feel air prickling the skin of that arm is an entirely different thing. It’s one thing to be taught the concept of love, another to experience it in your entire body. This was that—I was experiencing our connection, seeing we were connected and existing in a circle.
The most beautiful thing I have seen were the eyes of my mother gazing out at me from that garden, and in her eyes I saw myself, my girls, my husband, the intrinsic and esoteric connection of everything and everyone.
It is a wonder, growing into womanhood, but I am starting to hate being a woman. I am ashamed of what my body does. This beautiful thing that I once ran free in is turning on me, making me awkward and uncomfortable.
Now that I am fourteen, now that I am changing, is God ashamed with what he made, this body and this vibrant planet? The body formed in my mother, so good and beautiful, has it turned to shame with age and religious threads? If this body is not holy in and of itself, then God never should have made it in the first place. It’s the flower hating its vibrant petals, the beautiful tree sprouting from the earth only to grow and be ashamed of its bark.
Shame teaches us, but I will not teach my daughters in this way. I will try to empower them to be proud of their bodies, respectful of their bodies, in awe of how miraculous they are and what they are capable of.
I will tell my daughters that to be a woman is not to be lesser, not to be an object, not to be owned. She is not a body to exploit or a product to be consumed.
“She” is not shame.
“She” is beautiful woman with beautiful body, capable of cosmic realities. Holding someone close, experiencing love, making love, creating life, accepting another human life as her own, feeling pain, joy, giving strength, healing with a kiss, bringing wholeness with a touch, giving nourishment with her own body.
“She” is wise enough to follow, grounded enough to lead, if it’s leading a child or leading a nation. The woman’s body is made in the image of Love, from Love herself, Life herself, so she herself is of God.
See it, beautiful woman, you are good. See it, beautiful man, intersex, human, you are intrinsically good, perfectly good.
Perfect from moment one.
I am finding the more I am silent and listen to the soil and the trees, the more I let the wind catch me up, the more alive I am.