Highs and Lows and Other Paradoxes

Take a minute and try to remember the biggest mood swing you’ve ever experienced. Perhaps one moment you were on a mountaintop rejoicing about something incredible, only to receive horrible news that plummeted your heart into utter despair. Maybe you found yourself feeling incredibly angry about a situation, only to be hit by a wave of humor that sent you into a fit of hysterical laughter that continued until tears were rolling down your face, melting all the angry away. As your emotions settled back to someplace in the middle, maybe you recognized the irony in it all. If you are anything like me, you may have secretly wondered if you were are a little crazy for swinging across such a broad pendulum of emotions in such a short time.

I’m learning that adoption is like that. All. The. Time. You find yourself perpetually swinging between emotional extremes, caught in a world of irony and paradox that makes just a little sense and a lot of crazy in your head. For every mountaintop, there is a valley (okay, let’s be real…nine valleys). For every moment of exquisite joy, there is one or more of excruciating pain. You will swing from deep feelings of rage and frustration and injustice and fear into uncontrollable laughter that is senseless and necessary and life-giving and liberating. You will wonder a thousand times over if you might truly be crazy, and conclude almost as many times over that you are. Sometimes this self-diagnosis of insanity will bother you. Sometimes you will embrace it. And amidst all the feelings, there will emerge moments of intense confusion that will send you into a tailspin. But there will also be epiphanies of life-altering clarity, and these will be so eye-opening and gratifying that everything crazy suddenly seems sane…at least for long enough to hold you until the next clear moment.

Every night at dinner, Husband and the kids and I do what we call “Highs and Lows”, in which we share the best and worst part of our day. Our son loves it so much I’m pretty sure the actual game is his own personal perpetual high. The moment dinner is on the table, he starts chirping, “Highs and lows! Highs and lows!” Ironically, I feel like this could be the title for our family life as a whole.  Every day is made up of a hundred highs and lows. Some days the highs outweigh the lows. Other days, lows win by a landslide. Sometimes there are weeks of lows, in which you long for just one high to keep you going. But these are the weeks that make the highs that much sweeter when they do finally come. You see, a fight that is easily won merits a fairly inconsequential celebration. But a fight that is won through blood, sweat, tears, and after many prior losses is worth throwing a party for. Most of our highs are party-worthy. From the outside looking in, it may be hard to understand why a child who openly admitted he did something wrong is praised and rejoiced over. But when you discover that he has FINALLY just told the truth and taken responsibility after 27 previous lies, it suddenly becomes a big deal. A five year old stating that she is sad while crying may not seem of any real significance; to most, it appears obvious. But when you become aware that that same child has never once been able to identify a single emotion she was feeling, or even that she was feeling, you cry happy tears alongside her sad ones because you feel almost ecstatic at the sheer humanity and normality of what she is experiencing. Joy amidst sorrow takes on a whole new meaning.

You will experience situations of mortifying embarrassment, when your daughter throws a screaming tantrum in a store that nearly brings the roof down and commands the attention of every living being within two miles and makes you want to crawl into a hole and die. This will happen at least 46 times in three months. You will learn to appear calm, but inside, you will be screaming along with her, wishing you could cry as loudly as she does. Somehow, even as you are ready to pull her your hair out, you will feel a strange connection to her as you realize how alike you two actually are. Unexpected empathy and compassion will wash over you, and you will grasp at these as the God-given gifts that they are, lifelines in a world of swinging emotional extremes. Your heart and your mind will war with one another as you attempt to understand the source of her feelings and actions: Confusion? Frustration? Transition? Inability to communicate? Plain ugly sinfulness? Some combination of all of the above?

And then the moment of clarity, the high you’ve been desperately waiting for, unfolds so quickly you never saw it coming. One day you will find yourself checking out in a store like so many times before. You will approach the dreaded moment when you have to take away from her whatever thing she has latched onto and decided she wants (—As a side note, this is typically not a toy but more likely a roll of pink duct tape or a cooking magazine or a picture-hanging kit or a package of fish food or something equally mundane and bizarre and yet treasured by this unique little munchkin…is it weird that it’s not even weird anymore? Don’t tell me if so—). You will go to take this treasured object away from her, knowing that you have prepped her and explained to her at least eleven times throughout the course of the shopping trip that this item will not be purchased for her, and knowing equally well that all this intentional preparation will not matter whatsoever when she feels the sting of the loss and all ever-loving heck breaks loose. But she–and God’s grace–will surprise you in that moment. As you pry it from her fingers and wait for the piercing wail, you will watch a small miracle unfold instead. She will scrunch up her face in protest, but then start to chant to herself the script you have practiced with her a thousand times over. In her sweet little voice, she will comfort herself with not getting her way in one of the most healthy, self-controlled, appropriate demonstrations of coping you have ever witnessed. “Dat’s okay, baby. No fussing. Dat’s okay. No fussing. All done. All done. Dat’s okay, baby.” Your jaw will drop in shock and awe as you wait for reality to set in, for the tantrum to begin, for the spell to be broken. Instead, she will beam up at you, face full of joy and decided acceptance. You will feel like your heart is bursting with pride as you marvel at the giant leap she has just taken forward (as you inwardly talk yourself out of buying her every weird knickknack in the store as a reward for this incredible accomplishment). Every prior tantrum, every past moment of humiliation and mortification will fade into oblivion as you soar on the wings of this high that is ever so much higher than any of the previous lows.

And the extreme paradoxes will continue. One evening, your son will choose for his bedtime story a book about Rosa Parks that you chose from the book fair, hoping to create space for the conversation about race that you’ve been trying to have with him for over a year. You will read it together and watch the confusion chase across his features, followed by fear. You will feel shame, realizing that you have never once felt the weight of years of prejudice and oppression that he is subconsciously feeling now. You will feel the guilt of knowing that you were born into privilege, and that while he has been grafted into it, there will always be an unspoken divide between the two of you–unwanted and yet created by years of brutal and agonizing history–that will not be healed this side of heaven. You will be struck by both the beauty and the tragedy of the picture of adoption: this beautiful boy’s brown hand in your white (or according to him, “peach”) one…while you ponder just how amazing it is that you get to call him yours and yet how devastating it is for him that he was never given any other option. You will share in his confusion, and ask yourself why it had to be this way. You will find yourself swinging the pendulum again as your heart feels like it could never imagine life without him and then you simultaneously wish, for his sake, that you could. It was never supposed to be like this, you think. His presence in your family is the result of a fallen world, and yet together you both get the opportunity to share in the grace and redemption reflected in the mirror of adoption. This paradox is too complicated and terrible and wonderful to even comprehend, and you are struck by both the privilege and responsibility that you have been given to live out that truth on a smaller scale in your daily life.

As it has done so many times before, this paradox will turn your attention once again to the cross…the ultimate low. God in human form, bringing himself low, making himself nothing, for undeserving sinful scum like you and me. The unprecedented, indescribable low the disciples must have felt as they watched their beloved Jesus breathe His last. How fear and despair must have won the day that day! But how sweet the high–the sweetest of highs–when sorrow was transformed to joy at his resurrection! He is alive!

If you have had a day, a week, a month, maybe even a year of lows, remember that there is a high that is constant: the God of the universe, the King of Kings, stepped down to earth and humbled himself to die on a cross…for you. Then this Servant-King rose to life again so that you could walk in victory towards a future where lows will no longer exist.

So, really…when you think about the fact that His whole life was the greatest paradox of all…there is great comfort in living a life defined by paradoxical extremes.

Some Favorite Biblical Paradoxes
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:5-8

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Matthew 16:25

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. Romans 6:17-18

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Plans Unraveling

It’s funny how preconceived plans tend to unravel when real life hits. I’ve had predetermined plans about so many things, both large and small, and so many  of them have been changed, altered, or completely abandoned when reality arrived. God has a sense of humor, and I feel more thankful than ever that I was pushed as a young child to recite my dad’s mantra of Be Flexible, Be Patient over and over again 147 times a day like a robotic parrot. Somehow, at some point in my life, it became less of a meaningless, repetitive phrase that was forced upon me and more like a tightly gripped lifeline connected to my sanity. It has literally served as my inhale and exhale in moments in which the plans that I was *sure* would unfold in my life (ever so perfectly and effortlessly, I might add) were instead surrendered, all out of necessity, either willingly or kicking and screaming-ly. Among them were these:

  • I will homeschool all my children, right away, for their entire childhood
  • I will make my children eat fruits and vegetables at every meal (HA!)
  • I will do a Fun Project every day in the summer
  • I will make my children do thirty minutes of reading every day in the summer
  • I will write super meaningful blog posts documenting every event related to adoption, including bringing them home, finalization, and every trauma and celebration in between and after
  • I will never let my children have more than thirty minutes of screen time in a day
  • I will plan weekly fun “field trips” to entertain my children in the summer
  • I will purchase a family membership to the pool to ensure SO MUCH FUN for my children
  • I will join a gym to get into better shape as a Mama
  • I will make exciting and nutritious meal plans every week
  • I will be SuperMom, SuperWife, SuperMinistryLeader

Behold: all the plans. So well-intentioned. So noble. So well-thought out. Unfortunately, this naïve mama forgot to account for the unexpected while she was making all the plans. Like the fact that the adoption process can take away some of your choices about education, at least for awhile. Like adopting one child that hates to read (the thought physically hurts this die-hard reader), and another that doesn’t really need to try to conquer reading when we are still learning to pronounce the word “frog” in a way that doesn’t sound like a profanity . Like the fact that some special needs mean that fruits and vegetables are out of the question, and most days you are just happy that the kid ate goldfish, pizza, and gummy bears and hopefully got enough calories to survive. Like the reality that field trips to the zoo are awesome…unless sensory meltdowns (inevitably) ensue because you unwittingly go on the day when it’s free admission for the whole county and so of course the whole county DOES THE ZOO in loud, pushy, overstimulating and unsympathetic droves, and then nothing is awesome and  nobody has fun, not even the monkeys or the overfed giraffes. It is finding out that a summer spent at the pool is only fun if your children aren’t either (1) terrified to the point of catatonic paralysis by the thought of being in the water, or (2) ready to throw themselves with reckless abandon into the deep end the moment you let go of their hand, despite not knowing how to swim whatsoever.

The unexpected also includes getting pregnant two months before your long-awaited adopted children come home. It is unexpected when you find out you are one of those pregnant women who is ALWAYS nauseous and PERPETUALLY sleeping tired, so that when the kids arrive smack-dab in the middle of your first trimester, it’s pure survival mode and a whole lot of yes, you can have a sixth popsicle and sure, you can play your iPad for another hour because Mommy will puke if she moves and sorry, babe, but it’s cereal for dinner again and please pretend to be happy about it because otherwise I’ll have an emotional breakdown that I promise will rival our daughter’s zoo hysteria. The unexpected is finding that having time to blog is a big amusing joke and that there are some memories you’d sooner forget than document forever for all posterity to see.

But when you are learning to be flexible and sometimes patient (confession: this trait only shows its pretty face when I’ve had lots of coffee and Jesus time), you also learn that throwing out the preconceived plans is not always the worst thing. Sure, it can be painful for a bit, but there is also some serious relief and considerable freedom that accompany letting them go. And if you can learn to stop feeling the need to justify your changed plans to others AND to yourself, you might just realize that it’s okay to let yourself off the hook a bit and rest in that wonderful hammock of grace that was so lovingly stretched out for you by the One who actually knows all the plans. You will suddenly understand that the only thing worth planning on is to trust a Sovereign God who knows a lot more about your kids, their needs, you, and your needs than yours truly.

Letting go of all the other plans in favor of surrendering to His Ultimate Plan doesn’t mean the unexpected stops occurring. On the contrary, the unexpected is (forgive the bad pun) to be expected. But through the lens of grace and flexibility, the unexpected brings some pretty fantastic surprises. Like watching a little boy’s confidence shoot through the roof when he learns to ride a bike without training wheels in three days. Like seeing a little girl go from being mostly nonverbal to a happy little chatterbox in the span of a few months. Like finding out that public school teachers can be kind and loving and compassionate and invested in your child’s emotional well-being. Like learning that a projected lifelong heart condition has been healed (glory to God!) and no longer requires medication or treatment. Like finding out the baby who has been quite literally sucking the life out of you is a little brother for your son who so desperately wanted a boy. Like a hundred thousand laughs and happy tears and moments of sheer joy that you never knew you could experience this side of heaven. All things that were never written into all my carefully crafted plans.

But I wouldn’t change a single thing.