One Wednesday morning, crisp with fall, I scanned my calendar app on my phone. Heartbeat starting to skip, I soon realized that I did not have any plans set for after class that day. Cue panic. I frantically texted a friend to see if she was free–she wasn’t. I texted another. No response. Fingers stalled on my contact list, mind spinning and sputtering through possibilities, I sat on my bed, unhinged by the unsettling fact that I would have to go home and be alone that night.
That was 5 years ago. And if that scenario sounds a little ridiculous–don’t worry. I’m cringing a bit right now too.
Those kinds of memories crop up more and more as I enter my 5th year of living full-time in New York City. After all, it’s during these little milestones that you can’t help but muse about the person you were when this-or-that season of your life began and what you’ve learned since.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I avoid this kind of reflection because when I think about the ways I’ve changed over the years, I can all too easily lapse into self-deprecation, fixating on the things in myself I wished hadn’t changed. I’m engulfed by all the I used to bes and I used to dos until my mind has elevated my past self as far more captivating and worthy than my present self still learning and growing. I end up yearning for all that once was rather than investing in what has yet to unfold.
This is not one of those times.
When There Was Silence
See, when I was a kid, a Sundance film would have probably cast me as some wanderlust hippie child, all winsome curls and wandering feet, retreating to my childhood backyard as often as possible. I reveled in being outside, laying on the grass alone with no sound except the wind and maybe some distant cars passing. I settled into the silence as if it was a single pulse pulling the rhythms of the world together.
I heard God loudest there, sensed Him with me in the quiet. This was no esoteric meditation session, no light-infused encounter with the Divine. This was just me and my Creator, me babbling (sometimes ranting) to God about my day, asking questions, falling silent. In the silence, I could follow the meandering and messy threads of my thoughts. It was a space where I had time to locate myself emotionally and spiritually, loosening my concerns to God rather than burrowing them out fear of how looming and tangled they appeared to be. And even if I didn’t leave with more answers than I started, knowing God was present with me in the gaps between question and response was enough. I knew I wasn’t alone.
My intimacy with God grew out of these silences, those pauses where there was nothing else on the agenda but just to fully present with Him and also with myself. It wasn’t always peaceful–far from it. Sometimes those pauses were raw, tear-filled, stripping me bare because I knew I was being seen for all I was, for the things even I didn’t want to see in myself. But I was also healthier for those hours spent by myself, would feel refreshed and ready to re-enter the busy world around me and meet the other demands on my time and energy.
Now circle back to that Wednesday Without Plans. How did I get to the point where the idea of being alone induced that much anxiety?
New York State of Mind
There’s no doubt that being in the city changes you–it’s inevitable. You can’t transition to living in a place where noise and crowds and activity are a thrumming constant-a beat without end-and remain unaffected. During my first year living in New York City, the buzz of the city and its rapid pace of life became just that–a constant. Everywhere I looked, there were things to do and see, and as a seasoned extrovert, perpetually meeting new people carried its own kind of thrill.
But every good thing has the potential to become addictive. Even though I had grad school and later my job to fill my days, this itching need crept upon me, this compulsion to fill the rest of my time with activity. I played music almost 24/7, the silence afterwards deafening in the rare moments when I turned it off. Already an avid researcher, I channeled those skills into pinpointing events in my school and the city each day, internally filing potential outings as fallback plans. The days I did go straight home, I often immediately put on Netflix, streaming it for hours without even paying attention to the screen.
Within that haze of stimulation (easy enough in our culture’s fixation with endless scrolling and endless streaming), soon enough I turned to my relationships as another source of time-fillers. It wasn’t as blatant as: “Oh I’m bored, I should probably hang out with Sam.” That would be a total reduction of the meaningful time I spent with people and the impact those developing relationships left (and continue to leave) on me. But if I’m being honest with myself, when the anxiety of being alone snaked around my heart, when threatened by the possibility of silence, hanging out with people pacified the fear, made it possible for me to ignore it.
Living My Mess Life
I could declare I was “living my best life” as a punctuation to every conversation…and maybe it looked like I was. After all, it wasn’t like the things I was doing were bad. I was spending time with people, getting involved in service opportunities and protests for social justice, pursuing my education, connecting to my church community. The problem centered on the undercurrent of anxiety driving a lot of my pursuits.
I had internalized the buzz of the city to the point where I equated a life of business with one of purpose when I honestly didn’t feel much of it. When I took inventory of my activities and stock of my friends, I calculated them as a sort of currency I could accumulate so I didn’t have to feel lacking in anything. And the more I gave into the urgency to do, do, do more, the more alienated I became with myself. I had somehow lost the capacity to just be still or to be ok with silence, like a muscle atrophied from lack of use.
I knew something was wrong when I couldn’t make the walk from my apartment to the train stop without taking out my phone. It was ritual: take out phone, check apps, return to pocket. Repeat. It was the ultimate exercise in anti-mindfulness, pure distraction from pondering anything complicated going on in my heart. I knew something was misaligned in my life…but I didn’t know how to fix it, and I didn’t want to pause long enough to figure it out.
I was coasting, but nothing in the depths could be worked out within me the longer I dallied on the surface.
Facing the Music (or lack thereof)
Rock bottom came midway through my third year in the city. Depressed and restless, I sprawled on my bed one evening and stared up at my blankness of my bedroom ceiling. No words came. I had run out of them.
For the first time in months, there was complete silence. I could feel anxiety tugging at my thoughts, the familiar tremble in my chest, and I was tempted to get up, leave, but I got the sense that I would miss out on something important if I did. So I stayed.
In the sharp relief of silence, I saw what I had turned my relationships and plans and activities into: placeholders. More specifically, placeholders for the intimacy with God I didn’t feel. I had been avoiding God because I knew drawing closer would mean all the artifice of “living my best life” and having it together would be stripped away, leaving me utterly vulnerable. Ironic that it was the social worker-in-training (me) who avoided vulnerability the most.
All the things in me that I had been ignoring or suppressing rose to the surface, exposed at last. And with that exposure surfaced the stark, uncomfortable truth: I didn’t trust God to be enough, didn’t believe what he offered was enough.
Because God wasn’t delivering what I wanted in my work life, my love life, and even my own sense of emotional security, I turned to other things that could pour into the gaps God didn’t seem to be filling (or filling quickly enough). And because of that, there was a connection between my increase in activity and my emotional distance from God that I hadn’t realized. Even in doing things supposedly for God, I was running away from Him.
Letting God in meant discarding the sunny Instagram filters I had placed over my life and revealing the reality of my fears, hurts, and longings. I stopped ignoring the ache of my singleness that I had bullied myself into suppressing because I thought it was wrong to feel anything but happy and empowered in it. I saw how desensitized my heart had gotten in the face of injustice, the resignation that had settled far too easily in me and made me passive. I saw the wallowing of my professional dreams because I was too afraid to pursue them, to take risks, afraid that the cost would be the comfortable bubble I had constructed around myself.
I saw grief over faded friendships that I hadn’t allowed myself to feel. I saw my cravings for others’ praise. And reverberating through it all I saw the petrifying fear that I would ultimately disappoint my friends and coworkers and God–that I would never be enough.
Sitting in the silence challenged me to become intimate with the messiness of my life I hide away in the shadows. I could use my relationships and activities to project a sense of purpose and competence for myself, but those things could only sustain that feeling of security for so long. I could grasp for everything I wanted, have that perfect partner to love me or accomplishments in my career or people’s affirmation of me and still feel hollow.
It reminds me of a charge my pastor once gave us to ask ourselves whether “Jesus is enough in our lives” or if we needed “Jesus + add-ons” to feel satisfied. It could be Jesus + a lot of good, meaningful things, but when those things become our ultimate priority above Jesus, we end up dependent on them for our happiness when they were never meant to provide that for us.
We all have add-ons, things we can’t quite let go of because we’re still convinced we can’t be enough without them. We expect our relationships to complete us, media to constantly stimulate us, good works and acts of service to give us meaning. We look for wholeness in spirituality tailored to our desires, in the Otherness of another dimension, that if there is function or purpose in our stars, so must there be in ourselves.
But life without a meaningful relationship with God is a big Incomplete that we cannot fill ourselves. I often think I know best, and so I fill the vast, uncertain silences of my life with things that allow me to feel in-control of my outcomes, in-control of how people perceive me, and in-control of how loved and accepted I feel. But those add-ons are a pale substitute for the weight and substance of God’s love for me.
Silence and Sound
God is not subtle. He will challenge or remove anything I put up to distance myself from Him if it means I will be pushed to actually deal with my shit. I can’t tell you how many times when I’ve made plans to see a movie or meet with a friend with some subconscious desire to avoid addressing with some heart issue, and then those plans will oh-so-conveniently get canceled, like a Big Red NO. And even as I grumble, I acknowledge that this is God’s way of making space for the kind of reflection and soul-work I need to be healthy. It’s Him reminding me that apart from all the other things I lean on to hold me up, He is enough.
I recognize that we don’t always get the luxury of that. Noise comes without our asking. Unwanted clutter. Life’s challenges clog our time and drag our attention taut until we are about to snap, break. And yet, is there still a way for us to open up space in our lives to abide in silence and trust God will find us there?
I believe there is when we surrender our placeholders to God for the real thing: His presence. When I do that, I am no longer a woman craving love and purpose as if it is something to be scavenged and hoarded; instead God cultivates in me an understanding over time that I am gifted and equipped and loved enough to be positioned to do good and love deeply as I am. And more, we matter so much to Jesus that even our unrealized longings find purpose and direction in him.
Everything I’ve gained in my 5 years in New York City has emerged from the gaps in my life, the intersections where I haven’t found answers (yet), the silences where everything is in limbo. We flinch at those gaps, at what feels empty, seeking a buzz to break us out of mundane patterns and shake us into vivid being. But what I am reclaiming now is the knowledge that it is in these very gaps that God dwells, waiting to commune with us.