“Thou, O Lord, art a shield about me. Thou art my glory and the lifter of my head.” –Psalm 3:3
It was the beginning of my first school year teaching all four of my children at home, and we were still working out the various hiccups in our schedule. My twins needed to learn to read and write. My daughter had forgotten most everything she knew about multiplying multiple digit numbers. My oldest had slipped back into old habits of inattention and distractibility. And we were all still getting our bearings with the new school-year schedule and its far more structured and rigorous demands than our summer schedule.
As I managed the chaos and confusion and the conflicting needs of my children, God’s transforming work in my life was patently evident to me—I was far more patient than I ever could have been a year or even six months before. Still, my long history of anger, impatience, and anxiety had created habits that were deeply rooted in my brain and body, so while I marveled at the patience I often exhibited, I also sometimes fell back into those old habits. When the conflicting demands on my attention became imperious, or when I was tired, and especially when both happened on the same morning, I would become increasingly frazzled until by lunchtime, I was fried.
One noontime, Jane was still struggling with her math, I was trying to get lunch on the table, my twins were whining about how hungry they were, and Jack was finishing his writing.
“Mama,” Jane wailed. “I don’t understand!”
Luke said, “I’m hungry!”
I brought sandwiches and carrots and a jar of applesauce to the table.
Jack slid his essay across the table to me. “Can you read this?”
Ben said, “I want yogurt with my applesauce.”
Jane said, “I need help with my math! I don’t understand!”
Suddenly it was all too much, and I snapped. I grabbed Jane’s math book and slammed it shut. I took it to the kitchen and slammed it on the counter. I yanked open the refrigerator, grabbed the yogurt, took it to the table, and slammed it down in front of Ben. “There!” I barked.
Then I stalked to the kitchen, squatted on the floor in front of the dishwasher, wrapped my arms around my shins, rested my forehead on my knees, and felt simultaneously very sorry for myself and very angry with myself. The harpies started to sing and purr with glee. Poor sad tired tired sad sad you. Horrible horrible woman, stomping around like that, slamming books and food around like that. Taking the stuff that you feed your children’s minds and bodies with and turning it into barbed weapons of anger. Shame on you.
But I had been practicing habits three (silencing the harpies) and four (lashing myself to the mast). I knew those voices weren’t God’s. I knew God loved me, even in the midst of my bad behavior. So I asked myself, If God were to say something to me right now, what would He say?
Immediately words of comfort and love flooded my mind: Kimberlee, I love you. I am right here with you. My arms are around you. My grace is sufficient for you right here, right now.
My head snapped up from where it had been resting on my knees. I blinked away the tears in my eyes. God loved me. He was holding me. I was not alone in this mess of a day, this mess of me. I unfolded myself and stood up. I took a deep breath, inhaling the love of God who promised never to leave me or forsake me. I expelled a deep breath, surrendering all the stress, chaos, anger, impatience, self-pity, and self-loathing I was feeling into the hands of Jesus to do with as He pleased. Apparently He pleased to burn it up in the fire of His holy love, for after a few moments I was able to go back to the dining room and apologize to my children, receive their forgiveness and their apologies, and enjoy eating lunch with them.
This story contains several key pieces to understanding and implementing the habits of silencing the harpies, lashing ourselves to the mast, and lifting up our heads. First, it shows the beginning stages of changing that soundtrack in my head from one of condemnation (silencing the harpies) to one of unconditional love (lashing myself to the mast). When we are ashamed of ourselves or our actions (and sometimes we should be!), Jesus doesn’t double down on us and drive the shame deeper into us. No! He came and lived and died and rose again so we would not have to live with the shame of our own wrong-doing. He asks us to give Him our shame so He can crucify it and set us free from it and replace it with His love!
In order to do this (or let Him do it), we must stop cowering in the corners of our kitchens and our souls. St. Augustine called this curled up posture incurvatus in se, a Latin phrase that literally means curving in on one’s self. Most of us live most of our lives in this posture. It is the posture of the woman in Luke 13:
Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
Like this woman, we are bent over and curved inward. Simone Weil once wrote, “Sin is not a distance from God; it is a turning of our faces in the wrong direction.” Incurvatus in se is the wrong direction: we are looking not at Jesus and what He has done, but at ourselves and what we have done. For some people this looks like curling up in a ball in the corner of whatever room you’re in and giving in to thoughts of self-pity and self-condemnation and self-hatred. For others it looks like a sly, admiring grin in the mirror and thoughts of self-aggrandizement and self-congratulation. For still others it looks like both, sometimes simultaneously!
Regardless of what it looks like, the focus is on self. And that is the wrong direction. When we focus on ourselves, we become the only thing that we can see. Every injury and insult looms large when all we can see is ourselves. All our faults and flaws and failings get magnified as in a funhouse mirror. Even our good points get distorted and end up betraying us.
When I find myself spinning in my thoughts in a cycle of self-focus—whether that’s visions of grandiosity and grandeur or a death spiral of self-pity and self-loathing, I find it helpful to stand up straight, take a deep breath, and stretch out my arms. This posture is the opposite of incurvatus in se. It’s the posture of Jesus on the cross, His arms stretched wide to embrace the world. In this posture, I can look up—and see Jesus. I can look out—and see my neighbor. The one person I don’t see in this posture—is myself.
The woman who was bent over for 18 years, unable to straighten herself, lived in her body what many of us live in our spirits, and whatever else that story is about, it is also about Jesus healing us from being curved in on ourselves. He longs to straighten us up—to straighten us out—so that we can live with our arms wide in embrace and praise, our heads up, and our eyes on Him.
Lifting up our heads allows us to see Jesus clearly, and in seeing Him we can see ourselves and our own situation clearly. We see that we are not alone, that Our Lord shields and shelters us (Habit 2). We see that the voices of condemnation are lying harpies (Habit 3). And we see that we are deeply and unconditionally loved (Habit 4).
It is almost impossible to see any of this, let alone receive it, when we are curled into a tight little ball inside ourselves. Instead, we must lift up our heads and look at Jesus—for when we look at Him we see the perfect love that casts out fear, and we are in a posture to receive that love.
That is Habit 5: stand up straight, fling wide your arms, and lift up your head. The King of glory comes—to you.
Art: “Faith” by Faye Hall.