Loss, Living With Less, And Loving It

Today’s post is from a guest blogger, Russell Carstens.

Russell Carstens is a freelance writer from Central NJ. In 2007/08 he held a writing position for Princeton Theological Seminary’s Office of Communications/Publications, where he wrote for their inSpire Magazine and website. After earning his master’s degree in 2012, he worked in management and is now pursuing writing again.

Last December, my wife and I were greatly inconvenienced when we were essentially forced to move out of the first apartment we shared together. Our downstairs neighbor had let a pest problem go untreated for several months. Facing the risk of potential future issues, we decided that it’d be in our best interest to leave.

My favorite thing about that apartment was my precious extra room (or office, or man cave…whatever you’d like to call it.) The first thing I did when we moved in was set my stereo up in that room so I could hide away from the stresses of life and listen to my prized vinyl records. I look back with shame about how selfish it was of me to make this my first priority, rather than help my wife unpack items essential to our everyday life together.

When we moved into my mother-in-law’s house to escape the neighbor’s pests, I was terrified of not being able to participate in my record-listening ritual. As a lifelong music lover, I had wrapped up an enormous and unhealthy amount of my identity in being someone who lived, breathed and ate music. I considered myself a collector, spending hours in music stories seeking rare albums or other treasures that I could proudly display and feel special about owning. I saw my passion for collecting albums as a snobby status symbol that set me apart from more casual listeners. Now that I was sleeping in my brother-in-law’s old bedroom, I had nowhere to create an elaborate audio sanctuary.

So I did my best with what I had: an iPad with the streaming music service Spotify. I took a paper plate and cut out a small circular shape to act as a makeshift speaker enhancer. At first, I was disappointed to be without my more advanced stereo, but then something happened. I stumbled upon an unused Bible that was gifted to my brother-in-law over twenty years ago. I kept it bedside for nightly and morning reading. As someone who was raised Catholic more out of tradition than anything else, I hadn’t seriously studied the Bible until 2009 when I truly came to faith. One night I stumbled upon 1 Timothy 6:7, which reads, “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.”

Streamlining my possessions was something I had been doing gradually over recent years, but didn’t dare apply to my precious music collection. Now that I was forced to live without it, this Bible passage struck me to the core. Why cling to possessions when they will eventually no longer be ours? Everything in this world is fleeting and it’s important for us as Christians to keep this in mind. I realized I was no less happy having to listen to music on my simple little iPad. In fact, I discovered that I rather enjoyed the simplicity of it.

I used to waste hours sitting in front of my music shelf and organizing CDs, or protecting my vinyl records from the dangers of my cat’s eager-to-scratch claws. Once I got away from my most prized possessions, I realized they owned me more than I owned them. As a result, I embraced the simple new way I enjoyed music. More importantly, I had more time to focus on being a more faithful Christian and more devoted husband. My identity is now wrapped in my faith, where it should be.

After three months, we moved into a new apartment. The stereo and music collection came along, but for now they sit in the basement. I’m sure they will be in use again at some point, but I’m in no rush. I also know they will no longer have the grip on me they once did.

The minimalism bug has bled into other areas of my life as a result of this experience, and I’m now overjoyed by the liberating process of giving away or selling other possessions I realized I didn’t truly need. With every item we lose, our identity may die a little bit, but this is an opportunity to refocus ourselves in the right direction.




Why Is It So Hard To Let Go?

It’s the craziest thing. I purchased a pair of running shoes recently. I bought them because my old shoes were worn out. I had been looking forward to the purchase of these new shoes. The week I bought them I had a long discussion with my best friend about why I needed these shoes. But when I finally bought the shoes, I looked at how cute they were, put them back in the box, and proceeded to run in the old shoes.

This makes no sense. My best friend saw the humor in the situation. I was really looking forward to getting the new shoes but once I got them I didn’t put them on. I couldn’t let go of the old ones.

It wasn’t so much that I was emotionally attached to the old ones as it was that I wasn’t ready to step into the new pair. I wasn’t ready to step into a new phase of running. I didn’t know if I had what it took. Would I be consistent? Would I eat right? Would I do these shoes justice by training and eating like a runner? I knew what a runner should be doing and the shoes reminded me of that. I was afraid that I wasn’t up to the challenge.

It’s the same thing with writing. I hesitated to open the Writer’s Market I bought because I wondered if this would be the time that I actually used it. Would I put in the time? Would I finally do it? Would I press through the fear and feelings of inferiority to pursue my dream? Purging is the same way. It can be hard to let go of the jeans in the bigger size because it will mean that you can’t mess around with diet. It can be hard to let go of the purse you bought in Paris because it reminds you of better days and it’s hard to think about life without that memorial. It may be hard to let things go because you’re afraid of going without in the future.

It can be that way with people too. We can hold on to relationships. I stayed with my college boyfriend for months even though I realized that he wasn’t right for me. Our relationship wasn’t working. But I stayed with him because I was afraid to be alone again. I was afraid that I would miss him. I was afraid of what my life would look like without him so I held on to him. When I graduated my family took a week long vacation. That was the longest I had gone without seeing or talking to him — and it was fine. In that short time I realized that life without him was actually better than life with him. I broke up with him as soon as I got home and I haven’t looked back.

It can be hard to let go of the old because we are afraid of the new. It is completely understandable. The next thing can be scary. The unknown is always scary. And it’s okay to be afraid. The fear manifests itself in the holding on to things of the past because we are afraid of moving into the future. It becomes problematic when we let that fear hold us back.

Things aren’t just things. They mean something to us. They can come to represent periods of time or thought patterns or habits. There comes a time to let go of things and all that they represent even if it means moving into a scary new future without them. Don’t hold on to the old because you are afraid of the new. Yes, the unknown is scary. It might be hard. But might also be great. You will never know if you don’t move forward. Release the old. Prepare for the new. Go boldly.

Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is bittersweet for me. I lost my mother to Breast Cancer in 2006. Though she fought breast cancer for two years her sudden death was the result of septic shock. She walked into the hospital on her own and was gone in three days.

Her death was hard for me because it was so sudden but also because I was in China at the time. I came home from an awesome time ready to share my trip with her because she would have gone too had she been feeling well enough. I even had souvenirs for her.

When my flight landed my family met me at the gate. I noticed that everyone looked horrible but I thought it was because it was late and they were tired. My world stopped when they told me that my mom had passed a couple of days before. Initially, I was numb. I didn’t really get it. Then my head started to hurt. I remember going into the bathroom and telling God that I would get him through the funeral. I wouldn’t leave him then. After the funeral, though, all bets were off.

I stayed with my grandparents that night. I think I only slept for an hour and a half, partially due to jet-lag and partially due to the fact that my world had just been turned upside down.

My family was sad but I was confused. Part of me kept wondering if there was a mistake or if this was some kind of horrible joke. We talked about funeral arrangements, which had already been started. The reality didn’t hit me until I was driving with my family from my house back to my grandparents’ house. My uncle was driving my mother’s car and that’s when I realized that she was gone. I can’t even describe the pain. It was so violent that I couldn’t even cry.

The next few days were surreal. There was a funeral. Lots of people came to the house. There were flowers and cards and Thank You cards to send out. Then there was emptiness.

The pain was so maddening that we had to get away. My aunts, my cousin, my best friend, and I took a trip to Orlando — in July. It was great to get away and have a change of scenery. Going to such a busy place was somewhat therapeutic. There were tons of things to do, even if we chose to just hang out in the pool. That time helped me get through.

The next few months were difficult. The next few years were difficult. I eventually went to graduate school. It was really cool that my mother and I had visited Tulsa when she was still alive so I had memories of her in Tulsa that I could relive as I drove around.

I had a new city and a very challenging master’s program but it was still hard. It’s still hard nearly seven years later. I cry as I write this. My life has never been the same since losing my mother. It never will be. The pain never goes away. It changes, but it does not go away. It’s not always raw and violent. It is not always on the surface, but it is always there. It surfaces when it wants to, sometimes very unexpectedly.

One thing that has helped me through the last seven years was the overwhelming sense of pride that I have for her. My mom was an extraordinary woman of God. She loved people. She organized a feeding program at our former church. She started a bible study for teenage mothers and helped them get prom dresses when they needed them. She was active in our church. Her coworkers loved her and cried as hard as we did at her funeral. During the whole time of funeral and visiting I was filled with pride. I was so very proud of my mother.

I miss her. Every day. I still see her in my dreams and it is the most comforting thing in the world (usually). On occasion she is sick in my dreams and that completely ruins my day. Usually, though, my mommy is alive and well in my dreams and it is wonderful.

My mother was fearless. She was brave and strong so I try to be those things too. I have a lot to live up to as her daughter. But I have such a privilege of being her daughter. And it’s that feeling of pride and honor that gets me through difficult days.

I love you Mommy!

Past Failure Does Not Preclude Future Success

I have this problem. When thinking about things in my life I feel optimistic, but then the thought creeps up: Things didn’t work out when I … they probably won’t work out this time either. Or I’ll think some thing like, There’s no guarantee that this will work out this time because things didn’t work out last time.

Last night, I had an epiphany. If that logic holds true, then nothing will ever work out for me again. Allow me to explain: Let’s say I have Plan A for my life but something goes awry. Things don’t work out. Because Plan A fell part then I can be sure that Plan B will do the same. Likewise, Plan C will blow up, Plan D will crumble, and Plan E will run right into the ground. In fact, every other plan that follows Plan A will fail. If that’s the case, there is no point even trying anymore. My while life is doomed to failure because I had one thing that didn’t work out. I might as well just sit down somewhere and wait to die.

To put it in different terms, let’s say I played for the Chicago Bulls. It’s the third game of the season and we lose. Based on the logic I had, we would lose every game after that because we lost one game. We shouldn’t even show up to the rest of the games because we lost that one. It took me actually thinking through the implications of that line of thinking to realize how ridiculous it is. The past does not equal the future. Past failure does not preclude future success. It never has and it never will.

Not only has this thought pattern zapped me of hope and optimism, it has increased my anxiety level. It’s like I wait for something to go wrong. This is no way to live. Worse, I think that I have let this logic hold me back from even trying some things because things didn’t work out some other time. So things didn’t work out last time. Am I never supposed to try anything again? That’s just crazy.

I am not belittling failure. Failure hurts and can have consequences. I don’t deny that. However, I am boldly stating that we must move past failure into a future of possibilities. We must move forward with a bit of faith knowing that things very well could work out this time. We will never know if we never try. We have to step to each challenge as if the past failure never happened. We have to give 100% to the new challenge and not use past failure as an excuse to give less. Everyone fails at something. Don’t let past failures destroy your hope. Move forward knowing that past failures do not preclude future success.

“… failure is not disgrace. It is just a pitch that you missed, and you’d                 better  get ready for the next one. The next one might be the                                       shot heard round the world. My son and I are Americans,                                                                 we prepare for glory by failing until we don’t.”

-Craig Ferguson, American On Purpose