Guest post Tuesday! You’ve probably noticed that things are a little quiet here …and for good reason: it’s Advent. It’s National Cara Needs to Take a Break from Writing Month. It’s I Just Finished My Manuscript and I’m Cradling My Babies Time. You get it. But enough about that. Today, TODAY you get to hear from one of my favorites: she’s a force to be reckoned with, and she’s one hell of a writer, an editor and a friend. Enjoy Dorcas Cheng-Tozun’s words today.
When someone travels 7,000 miles to give you advice, it’s probably a good idea to take it seriously. Even if that advice involves a centuries-old ritual that seems too simple and irrelevant for my life.
More than six years later, I’m still following that practice, and, at the very deepest core of my character, it has changed me.
Back in 2009, I was living with my husband in an industrial city in China called Shenzhen. We had been there for about ten months—just long enough to break my spirit. The stress of trying to get my husband’s multinational business off the ground, along with the harsh treatment I received from the locals, caused me to become consumed with anxiety, depression, and despair.
To be honest, despair is not an unfamiliar feeling for me. In the personality system known as the Enneagram, I am a type 4. We Fours are called tragic romantics, and that’s pretty much all you need to know. For us, the glass is never just half empty; instead, the glass represents all of our unfulfilled expectations and evaporating dreams. And so we despair.
In China I actually had good reason to despair. But I had let despair overtake me to the point where I could feel almost nothing else. After we sent a few distress signals over email and Skype, our pastor and another friend from church flew across the Pacific Ocean—from California all the way to the southeast corner of China—to visit us.
The first evening we spent together was for tears. Buckets of tears. Our friends simply listened, empathized, and prayed for my husband and me—for me especially. The next day our pastor asked me one question: “Have you heard of the spiritual discernment practice of consolations and desolations?”
“No,” I admitted.
He explained how St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, developed this practice in the 1500s. It is a practice of self-examination, of paying attention, of listening. Consolations, as I understand them to be, are the experiences that feed my soul and draw me closer to God and all that is good. Desolations are the experiences that drain my soul and pull me away from God.
This was our pastor’s advice, brought to us from halfway around the world: “Take a few minutes to name your consolations and your desolations at the end of each day.”
I waited with bated breath for more, but that was it. I didn’t understand. How was this practice supposed to help me when my life was so awful, and the state of my soul even worse off?
But whatever we had been doing up to that point clearly wasn’t working, so we were willing to try it. No matter how tired or cranky or doubtful we felt, we set aside time each night to name at least one consolation and one desolation from the day. The exercise felt silly, even pointless. Yet there had to be a good reason why it had survived for more than five hundred years.
In the weeks that followed, something began to shift in my spirit. The act of intentionally finding something positive and life-giving in every day, no matter how terrible the day had been, reset my brain just enough for me to begin releasing the depression and anxiety that had haunted me for months. I started looking—with new and deliberate eyes—for the goodness, the beauty, and the little graces that each day offered.
And the despair that I had known all my life as a familiar companion began showing up less often. In its place appeared a nascent gratitude, a budding hope that all is never lost.
Today my life is not nearly as dramatic as it was back then. We moved back to California several years ago and live in an idyllic suburban neighborhood. But between a workaholic, world-traveling husband; an adorable but extremely needy three-year-old; and a writing career that regularly sputters and stalls, there is plenty of space for despair to enter, if I let it.
My husband and I go on weekly date nights whenever we can, another ritual that makes me a healthier, more grounded person. Those date nights are meaningful in large part because it is the time and place that we continue to practice naming our consolations and desolations. Amidst the tantrums and the sleep deprivation and the publisher rejections, I am training myself to see our world, not as a place defined by disappointment and suffering, but as one full of hope and promise and a loving God.
It is not an easy perspective for me to have. My default is still to despair; we Fours just can’t help ourselves. But my eyes are clearer now, my spirit a little lighter, as I take the time to remind myself of the consolations of each new day.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is an award-winning writer, blogger, and editor who has found healing and hope through words. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today, The Well, and Asian American Women on Leadership, and has written for more than a dozen other publications. Previously she worked as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional in the US and Asia. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and adorable hapa son. Find her online at chengtozun.com or on Twitter @dorcas_ct. It’s Cara the Enneagram Seven again here …but I tell you, I need me some Fours in my life, just as I need the practice of simply noticing when I gravitate toward and when I pull away from God. Leave Dorcas a comment below!