Kelsie Harriman: “I Pray for You in Specific”

This week, I’ve found myself considering the not-so particularly comfortable topic of Heaven and hell. I am usually successful at avoiding serious consideration of the matter by employing the “It’s God’s job to determine ‘who goes where;’ not mine” principle. I thank God every day that we can and should allocate the responsibility of judgement to Him and not to ourselves, but this fact does not negate our obligation to seriously ponder the question.

I was reminded of this obligation last Tuesday night during a late-night conversation I had with a Muslim friend. He had requested to interview me for a religious ethnography he was conducting for a qualitative research class. Having myself before been assigned the dubious task of qualitative research, I readily agreed to help a brother in need.

He asked me if I had grown up in a Christian family? Yes, I had. How old I was when I started attending church? Since Infancy. Since before infancy. Did I believe I would still be a Christian, had I been born into a Muslim family in Egypt?

          Good question I’d like to think so?

Did Christians believe that Muslims can go to heaven?

          Good question.

My friend’s query cut to the heart of the uncertainty I’ve lately been experiencing about religion. I found the “It’s God’s job to determine ‘who goes where;’ not mine” trope sufficient to quell the qualms younger me had about the eternal fate of the non-Christian world, but lately, I’ve found it lacking. How am I to respond to a dear Muslim friend, who sits across the table from me, sincerely curious about what I believe to be the fate of his soul? How am I to respond to he, whose life arguably embodies more Christian virtue than my own? It was easy for me to casually leave the fate of the “non-Christian world” up to Jesus when I knew very few people in the non-Christian world. It became very hard for me to nonchalantly leave this question up to a Higher Power, however, when some of my dearest friends, who’ve taken the “God” question every bit as seriously as I, have reached a conclusion other than Jesus.

My friend and I each wanted desperately to be kind to each other. To reassure and to encourage and to convey the respect we had for the each other’s faith, even though we were convinced of the truth of our own. In such a situation, it seemed far too perfunctory for either of us to say about the other’s fate, “Don’t worry; it’s God’s job to judge.” That doesn’t convey “I care about you” very loudly, does it.

Confused, and a little disillusioned, I decided to respond to the question about what I believed to be the fate of my friend’s soul with one truth about which I am absolutely certain.

          “God loves you. And so do I.”

We parted ways in peace, closer companions than we had been before.

That night as I was going to bed, my phone buzzed. My friend had sent me a message.

Kelsie,

I just prayed my last prayer for today this time I didn’t only mention people who are good in general but I mentioned your name in specific. I prayed for you to enter heaven and I’ll be really happy first to be there and to see you there.

I pray for you in specific as well, my friend. And I am going to be very happy when I arrive in Heaven. But perhaps even happier if my prayers are answered, and I see you there too.

Kelsie Harriman: “Enough As You Are, Not As You Should Be.”

imenough

We live in a world of scarcity. We wake up not having slept enough, to get in a Starbucks line not moving fast enough, to go to work to make a dent in the pile of yesterday’s unfinished business.

There is a sort of buzzing, electric energy that comes to me when I face a burgeoning schedule with insufficient time and resources to get it all done. It is an opportunity to be the kind of person who, without enough time, sleep, or resources, can accomplish as much or more than everyone else. I want to do in three hours what everyone else does in four. I want to run five miles when everyone else runs two.

I have become hooked on the tangible sense of purpose that comes when attempting to do more than is expected, and I have found college to be an optimal breeding ground for this addiction. In college (or maybe in life in general, but college just happens to be my life right now), the standards are set high enough to ensure that you’ll never quite reach them, but you’re sure to be utterly convinced that everyone else around you is. This type of competition has afforded me a great sense of meaning. I know what needs to be done to out-compete myself and others; it is only a matter of whether I have enough talent and willpower to do so. As long as I am operating from such a place of scarcity, I have purpose.

I was hit with the full force of my addiction to scarcity after a recent encounter with an acquaintance in the dining hall. The incident came at the end of a week when my schedule was uncharacteristically empty (maybe this is because I quit statistics, who knows), and I was feeling insecure. Free time, obviously, is not a cause for celebration, but for panic. To me, an empty slate implies only one of two things: either I am forgetting some of my obligations, or I am a lazy, unmotivated, not-reaching-my-full-potential kind of person. Either alternative leaves me feeling troubled, so I have learned to avoid considering these possibilities by making myself busy enough that I never have time to think about them. Usually, I am great at this. But unfortunately for me, last week, I was not.

So I was in the dining hall, collecting my usual pile of goodies from the salad bar, when I spotted my acquaintance by the espresso machine. She looked like stress incarnate: about six book bags hung off her arms, a half-eaten banana dangled limply from her hands, and she oozed of over-worked anxiety. I called out to greet her, and in response I heard, “Sorry-gotta-run-have-two-homeworks-and-a-midterm-tomorrow-also-club-meetings-for-which-i-am-the-president-and-secretary-and-treasurerer-all-in-one-and-my-boss-needed-me-to-proof-read-his-newsletter-by-yesterday.” Oh. So  she didn’t have time to say “Hi.” Forgive me.

The encounter left me frazzled, partly because anxiety is a little contagious, partly because I felt legitimately sorry for the girl, but mostly because my own sense of inadequacy was threatening to overwhelm me.  After she left, I actually stopped, put my tray down, and took a deep, meditative breath near the salad dressings. That day, I had only worked for five hours. I had no class attend. I had no urgent homework. I had planned to go lap swimming before dinner, but decided to take a nap instead. The list of the things my acquaintance was doing that I was not were severely threatening my sense of self-worth. Thankfully, before jumping headlong into the rabbit hole of self-depreciation, I paused to remember what happens when I let myself be defined by what I do.

Younger me knew nothing about scarcity. My childhood was full and content. I slept as long as I wanted, ate whatever I liked, and did whatever made me happy. I did not compare myself to others, and I was certainly not at war with myself. I have a highly competitive spirit, however, and it was only a matter of time until it turned inward. I remember distinctly the day, during my freshman year in high school, when I decided I needed to become more “healthy.” I knew that didn’t run enough, walk enough, mediate enough, or eat enough produce for the CDC’s tastes, and there came a day, when, for whatever reason, I began to feel a pressing need to address my insufficiency.

Initially, it was somewhat fun , and most certainly satisfying, to witness the fruits of my self-improvement. The “healthier” I become, however, the more insufficient I perceived myself to be. Soon my sense of inadequacy defined me. I lost 20 pounds during the spring of my freshman year, and I spent the rest of high school trying to pick up the pieces of a girl who had tried and failed desperately to find worth in her achievements.

Sometimes, just when I think I’ve successfully managed refashion all of my broken parts, I realize just how cracked I still am. “Whole” people don’t write 900 word blogs about encountering busy friends in the dining hall. “Whole” people take naps without feeling guilty, eat dessert without feeling anxious, and fully enjoy their days off from work. I think there are fewer “whole” people out there than one might think, though; we are all a little cracked in our own way.

Here, then, is a tribute to all of the cracked and broken people out there: the ones who are driven by a sense of inadequacy, and who’ve tried and failed to find personal worth in achievements. I haven’t successfully pieced myself back together yet, and I have a feeling that I never totally will. But maybe, just maybe, being a a little bit broken is OK. Being a little bit broken is…..enough.

As Brennan Manning wisely said, “God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be.”

In these words, let all the cracked and broken people find peace.

Kelsie Harriman: “All These Twenty-Somethings Need a Family”

I didn’t realize what family was until I didn’t have one any longer.

To preface the remainder of my thoughts, my family members are all happy and in good health. Perhaps I have just been afflicted by a severe case of melodrama, but I am quite sure that the there are many other twenty-somethings out there who have all lost their families, too.

Family of Origin

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I was born into a family of five: two parents, two siblings. Our happy quintet lived in a tan house with a red door on a curvy street in Livingston, Montana.  One of the greatest gifts in my life has been this family of my origin; the people from whom I first learned about belonging.

To belong is to have a rightful place. To have a claim on the members of your group, and to have members of that group have a claim on you.  A family is nothing more than a pure, unadulterated unit of human belonging

Adolescent me could have cared less about belonging. My younger days (and I’d venture to guess the younger days of just about everyone out there) were characterized by an attempt to differentiate, to break away, and to be made unique. My efforts were significantly hampered, however, by my two parents and two siblings. Because we belonged to the same family unit, they had many rightful claims on my behavior.I wanted wear shorts to church. Not fine. Because Dad said that “that’s not the way we do things around here.” I wanted to eat raw cookie dough. Not fine. “Because Mom said so.”

Fortunately, given the endemic dependence of adolescence, I also had many rightful claims on the behavior of family members. I couldn’t figure out how to file my own taxes. Fine. Because I had a claim on my Mother to help me. I was having a bad day and I needed someone to talk too. Again, fine. Because I had four people who were contractually obligated to give me a shoulder to cry on.

While an active, live-in member of my family of origin, I remember longing for my twenty-somethings, when the Hobbesian chains of the familial contract would be loosed, and I would be free to make my own place in the world.

The Transition 

My twenty-somethings are upon me now, and the Hobbesian chains of the family contract have rightfully been loosed. My parents and my siblings don’t know what I do unless I tell them. Bank account permitting, I could leave tomorrow and go anywhere and do anything I wanted. No one has the rightful claim to stop me.  This, the freedom about which the world’s adolescents are dreaming.

Let me now, speaking now from the other side, tell them all that it is not all that is cracked up to be.

There are three phases of belonging in a human life, defined by the family unit with they are associated. The first is the family of origin, or the family into which we are born. The third is the family of creation, or the family we build together with our spouse. In between these clearly defined first and third phases lurks a second, which I will charitably label as “transition.” Transition is the ambiguous, “who in the world do I think I am anyway” phase that Someone decided to stick in between the family of origin and the family of creation. Self-discovering-forward-thinking-time-of-your-life-whatever, it’s lonely out here.

The ever-present belonging of our families of origin leaves us when we leave home. People say a lot about how college is different than high school, and the one thing they don’t say is that in college, there is no belonging. When you settle in for the first night of freshman orientation, your roommate is not contractually obligated to listen to you. You have no right to insist that she provides a shoulder to cry on. Unless you’re great at making friends, she probably won’t help you with your taxes, either. What is one caught in the ambiguous stage between Origin and Creation to do?

The Family of Transitionfamily(2).jpg

One ought to make a family. Our families of origin are the only ones that are given to us. The other two Families we must find for ourselves.

The path to a family of creation is easy: locate spouse, make children. Finding the family of transition, though, is tough. Tough to find the someone or the someones for whom you are willing to make significant commitments of time and effort and love. The someone or someones for whom you are willing to stay up for late-night, tear-wrought phone calls. The someone or someones who are willing to provide a shoulder for you to cry on, even though they are under no obligation to do so.

family(4).jpg

This piece is written in honor of my two Families. My parents and my siblings, who stuck with me when no one else would. My dear friends — my Family of Transition — for whom I would give the world. With God’s grace, may I one day create a family which affords my children the same sense of belonging that my two families have given me.

family(3).jpg

Kelsie Harriman: “Hope: Not a Gift, but an Obligation”

Hope-2-570x379

I am certain I am alone in admitting that high school was not a particularly happy time in my life. During that period, my inner life was something of a mess, yet all external measures of well-being indicated that I had everything together. On numerous occasions, I had peers inform me that my life was “perfect.” Although frequent repetition should have aided me in constructing a reasonable response to this accusation, I failed to ever generate a satisfactory answer. Sometimes I would laugh self-consciously. Sometimes I’d mumble and turn away. Usually, though, I was just silent. I always wanted to say something along the lines of “If you only knew.” If you only knew that I’m scared and insecure and plagued by feelings of inadequacy. If you only knew that I struggle with depression and anxiety and disordered eating, and I am pray to God to give me hope to get through the day. But people just don’t say those kinds of things, do they.

The Already

Theologian Gerhardus Vos proposed a theological concept in the early 1900s which argues that the life of a Christian is characterized by both the “already” and “not yet.” “The already,” is our temporary, earthly existence, and the “not yet,” is the glory that awaits in heaven.  A Christian, Vos claims, is called to live in the tension between the two worlds.

I very seldom experienced this tension in high school, as I believed myself to be doing fairly well fully immersed in the “already.”  I attended a public school whose limited size allowed me to succeed in most of my endeavors.  Obsessive training put me in top positions on my cross country team, long hours of practice gave me a spot in the All-State band, and fear of being outcompeted afforded impressive marks on my transcript.  On my own power, I was able to earn for myself accolades that others did not have. At the end of my four years of high school, I was notified that my “perfect life” had earned me a spot at the University of Chicago, where I enrolled as a student in the fall of 2014.

The Tension

It took only a few weeks at the University of Chicago to understand that my compulsive work-ethic and intelligence were no longer sufficient to differentiate me from my peers. I could study as many hours as I liked, but there was someone studying longer. I could wield all of the knowledge that I had, but someone else knew more. Fears of inadequacy, which up until then I had been able to stamp down by comparing myself exclusively to the small pool of people from my hometown, began to rise up. I was no longer able to outcompete, and unfortunately, I was in an environment in which this was paramount, surrounded by many similarly unhappy people who were laboring under the same burden.

The Not Yet

I write today with a feeling not of tension, but of peace. Not because I’ve become accustomed to my inadequacy, or because many hours of taking derivatives actually made me good at calculus, but because I’ve discovered an advantage I have that few others do. I have hope.

I’ve come to believe that my primary purpose as a university student, and as a human being in the world at large, is to hope.  I have encountered a large number of students in the last two years who have been disheartened by heavy demands and unrealistic standards, fighting valiantly, as I did in high school, to be successful. I’ve now withdrawn from the contest, however, not because I’ve given up, but because I’ve realized the competition is for a prize I do not want.

This is because I have an assurance of something much better. 1 Peter 3:15 appeals to Vos’ notion of the “not yet” by compelling Christians to “Be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” I have hope in Christ Jesus and a world wherein there is no more dying, no more death and no more pain. There will come a day when earthly things will pass away, and the “contest” in which we are all engaged will be won by the people who the world now says are losing.

In my darker days, I would pray to God to give me hope as if it were a gift. I no longer believe hope is a gift, however, but an obligation. We need hope in order to live the life oriented toward the Better Tomorrow to which He has called us, and the world needs hope to keep it from falling apart. My primary purpose as a student at this university is not to receive an education, or discover myself, or get a good job. My primary purpose is to have hope, and to be prepared to explain this hope to anyone who asks.

Espérance Mutoniwase: The Kind of Place I Want My Children to Grow Up In

“I want my children to grow up in a place where people are not driven by the fear of scarcity, are aware that life is not to be lived individually, and genuinely care about each other.”

~ Espérance Mutoniwase, University of Chicago Class of 2019

When I was growing up, I used to see many young children in the street in Kigali; they were different from me in that they wore dirty clothes, they didn’t have a parent holding their hands when crossing the road, and worst of all they were begging. At times, those poor kids used to come and knock on every house in my neighborhood, including my home, asking for food. The response of the grownups wasn’t always positive: “There is nothing for you here, go away,” said most of the people to those poor souls.

I remember one day when I opened the front gate and invited the young boy who had knocked to come in. He had asked me for something to eat, and thinking that there was only one right thing to do, I invited him inside and went to ask my aunt who was at home that time where the remaining food was kept. “Are you hungry?” she asked me. I said no and told her that I was taking the food to a street boy outside. My aunt’s face immediately changed, and suddenly she was angry. She told me that I should never let strangers inside the house again. I replied, “But they are just hungry children,” but she refused to help, and I could say nothing more.

This incident saddened me — seeing the poor boy about my age leaving our house with an empty stomach, while there was food inside the house he was walking away from. But it was just one of many cases of injustice that I would witness in my life. As I was getting older, I realized that even when those orphans were simply begging in the road, no parent would allow his child to get near them. Sadly, there were many children who would grow up thinking that they had nothing in common with the street boys, and that the way things are occurring is the way they should be.

If we did not learn any better as children, we would accept that we shouldn’t get near children who were homeless, beggars or orphans, that we shouldn’t open our gates for them without even asking what was the reason. One day, I asked my parents why those children lived differently than we did, and why they were not welcomed in most of the homes, yet they were just children longing for someone to take care of them or give them some food. What I got as an answer was that some people thought that they were thieves, or that they were youngsters wanting just to wander everywhere! I was shocked by that answer because in my country there is saying that “A child is a king,” but it seemed like too many children were not treated well, at all.

I grew up in a place where children are not always treated as kings, but it should not remain like this. My children and grandchildren should not be rebuked if they open the door to a poor child who just needs a plate of food. No children should grow up in a place like that, a place where people don’t trust each other to the point of seeing a hungry boy and only thinking that he might be a thief, instead of a precious treasure that all children are. I want my children to grow up in a place where people are not driven by the fear of scarcity, are aware that life is not to be lived individually, and genuinely care about each other. I want our next generation of global citizens to grow up in a place where no child has to worry about what she is going to eat that night, or what her family is going to eat, because adults will have taken care of everything. Most of all, I want to always be one of those adults!

Kelsie Harriman: You Are Your Limits

long road

 

This morning I woke up anxious with the weight of an upcoming decision. Just as I was getting lost in the rabbit hole of counterfactual universes, wherein the choice I make about whether to take a statistics course or a humanities course completely alters my life outcome, my mind was derailed to an email my friend and pastor from Montana, Shad Durgan, sent to me on March 3, 2016.

RE: Hello From Livingston

“…..Somewhere (in sin I think) we lose what it means to be human. Everything tells us we are not human.  “You can go change the world. Follow your dreams, you can be whatever you want to be”…..But the reality is that to be human means to be rooted in limits. I can only be in one place at one time. I can influence that one place at one time, but if I try to be everywhere I am nowhere…..A choice to do something means a choice not to do something.…You will make choices as you grow that will limit you. And that’s a good thing. Maybe if we want to be most human we should choose those things that limit us the most. (Don’t take that last sentence too far, like, don’t choose jail.)”

This whole situation – the rabbit hole of counterfactual universes and a good, healthy dose of existential angst – came upon me last night in the basement of the Regenstein Library (which incidentally, Shad, bears remarkable resemblance to a penal institution). It was 10:00pm on a Tuesday evening, and I was trying to teach myself how to use STATA, a statistical software.  I was not doing this for fun (as you may have imagined). I was doing this because I thought I wanted to minor in statistics. Because I was under the impression that minoring in statistics is what a smart, successful person should do.

Several hours of googling “How to perform ________ command in STATA” for every question on the handout had left me feeling, well, pretty gross. You know the kind of cloud that comes over you when you can’t do something? Thoughts of “I’m no good at this,” turn into thoughts of “I’m no good at anything” turn into thoughts of “What is my place in the world and does God really exist?” I hadn’t yet advanced to the final stage of this triad when time came to leave the library, but I was quite close. Thankfully, I did not exit the building alone, but with my better half, who graciously offered to walk me and my existential angst back through the dark and the rain to my dormitory.

“Why do you want to minor in statistics, again?” he asked, clearly puzzled by the demeanor in which my homework assignment had put me. I paused. What a simple question. What a difficult question. “Because I feel like I should,” I told him. Another pause.

Oh.

I was listening to a great Freakonomics podcast once entitled, “The Upside of Quitting.” It argues that the most successful people in life are the ones who are able to realize when they are bad at something, and then to quit. I didn’t particularly like the message when I first listened to it, as I have always been the type of person who takes pride in my grit and tenacity. Something’s difficult? You’re no good at it? Great. Try harder.

Generally, this is a good an admirable quality.

But not when our grit and tenacity grow to the point where we lose what it is to be human. To be rooted in limits. We may fight our way through a difficult road and perhaps come out alive on the other side, but reaching the end intact does not mean that the road was ever ours to walk in the first place. I could have stayed in that statistics class, finished the minor, and been able to proudly boast for the rest of my life that I am really good at googling commands for STATA. But all of the energy I would have invested into walking that road, for which I have not the proper shoes, physique, or will to traverse, would have been taken away from doing what I love: from writing, and reading, and thinking about things I can’t look up in a t-table.

So thank you, Shad Durgan, my better half, and my friends at Freakonomics, for reminding me that I am defined by my limits. Sometimes, I am what I do. Sometimes, I am what I don’t.

Oh, how exhausting it is to be human.