Before and Afters

I love a good story, and some of the best stories are told by before and after pictures. We love them because they tell the story of transformation. Two snapshots, two remarkable changes. Living rooms, front porches, bodies. The way it used to be (maybe not the way we want) and the way it is now (so much better). You expect the difference to be obvious.

But most of life presents us with situations not easily captured with before and afters. I sometimes want to say, I’ve been remodeling too. See how my heart is a little more whole than it was five years ago? But a picture would simply show that I look five years older.

Struggling with RA, I sometimes want to say, See how much better my joints are than they were a couple years ago? But a picture would simply show the older thing.

This is especially true with grief and loss and change. See how my heart is recovering from the loss of my dad, my church community, even my faith? Others have their own stories about moving forward after the loss of a spouse, a career, a relationship. But again, pictures can’t really capture all that.

I have learned that even though before and after pictures are motivating and can encourage us to pursue goals that may be challenging, life is mostly the picture that isn’t easily captured. There are so many “afters” that go unnoticed, especially as we grow older. 

Very few people post pictures after a kitchen has had one cabinet replaced, or after a small weight loss when there is more to lose. We patiently wait for the progress to be visible. The work was likely harder for the beginning changes because they required a huge overhaul: of habits and routines and structures in place for a long time. But what we really want is the picture that demonstrates transformation.

For all of us who are rebuilding, remodeling, and remaking a life affected by loss and change and challenge: please remember that the story of transformation you are carrying in your heart is beautiful and true. Pictures are one way to tell a story. But when pictures are not possible, words can step in and do the work. Words build stories, and stories build steps that we might see a new perspective. 

In the quiet spaces of our hearts, we craft a narrative of strength, courage, and love that keeps us moving forward. Because it’s really not what others think that matters, anyway. It’s what we believe about ourselves and how we take our small (and not so small) victories with us wherever we go. And hopefully use them to encourage and inspire others to do the same.

The two transformation pictures on here are for a project that didn’t take all that long to accomplish. I snapped a picture before we started. It’s not a good picture, but you can never retake the before picture so it’s gotta work. We changed a plain wall into one that pops a little. 

But what I really wish I could post are the pictures of all the changes in my heart. Life has made my heart softer, kinder, more open to the pain and struggle of others. It has been healing from trauma so deep I didn’t think I would recover, but I am. I want to post the picture. But I’m gonna have to settle for words.

“If it’s not on Instagram, did it even happen?” Even if it can never be posted on that platform, the befores and afters that no one can see may be the most real of all.

Everything Changes

This isn’t a shocking thought anymore, is it? As we grow older, we become increasingly aware of how much change takes place over the years. Some are those we choose; some choose us. But all we know is there’s a boatload of change swirling around us. 

Maybe we’ve accepted that as best we can. But what about the changes that swirl inside us? We can act as if we’re the North Star, the constant in the midst of tectonic shifting. And while it’s true that sometimes we no recognize our lives, what about when we no longer recognize our selves?

I was talking with a friend about this recently. She was sharing about the insecurity she was feeling because of how much life has shifted. When we are no longer actively involved in careers, in parenting, in the relationships that were developed through each of those, who are we?

“Well, I thought I was…” There’s many ways to fill in the blank here. 

“I thought I was a people person.” But now I find my circle of friends to be on the smaller side. And while it’s still fun to gather a number of friends for drinks and discussions, mostly I want to sit with one or two and dive deep into some of the strange thoughts and processes associated with this stage of life. 

“I thought I was a positive person.” But now there are times I find myself dealing with sadness that I can’t shoo away. Sometimes I don’t really know the reason. And I want to know the reasons so I can replace those with reasons to be happy. None of that is wrong, and we have mostly been trained to do that along the way. “Control your thoughts, control your life.”

But what if some of those thoughts need space to stretch out and breathe? What if the sadness needs to rest for a while so it can get processed and moved through? Where do we get our daily dose of sadness training?

In her latest book, Bittersweet,  Susan Cain points out that light and dark, birth and death—bitter and sweet—are forever paired. I think it gets more obvious as we get older because we have experienced more dark, more loss, and more death with the passing of time. It is not an anomaly. It is part of our humanity.

It is important to remember though, when wrestling with sadness, that it is not a perpetual state of being. When we allow ourselves to sit with it and recognize that the pain and sorrow we are experiencing is somewhat sacred, our ability to appreciate the beautiful and the sweet parts of life becomes even greater. 

Personally, I like being happy. It’s not my favorite to sit with sadness.  But it is through the bittersweet moments of life that we learn most about who we are. We become more grateful for the times of joy, more patient with others experiencing challenges, more compassionate for those walking through life transitions. 

Who are we at this stage of life and who are we becoming? This is a question I think many of us are sitting with. We live inside the paradox of living in the moment while also realizing that moments are racing by and this moment isn’t the end of our story. 

There is beauty and light and joy all around us, and we now have the time to notice it and stop for it and even run into it. So as we are confronting the changes both inside and out, let’s make space for who we are becoming. 

Even if we have no idea who that is. 

Things Frosty Knew

“Frosty the snowman knew the sun was hot that day. So he said,
“Let’s run and we’ll have some fun now before I melt away.'”

A shift in the atmosphere can shift everything. Frosty knew that “the sun was hot that day” and the shape of things was about to change. It doesn’t say that everyone else knew, though. They were likely enjoying the snow thinking Frosty would be with them forever.

I think back to so many moments of my life that I thought were forever. Carefree childhood days, walking our high school halls, being home with toddlers, having children asleep in their beds, friendships and communities, being in a pandemic…

In good times and in hard, we can think the “snowman thing” will last forever. But seasons change. And so does the shape of life. It looked one way. But the “hot sun” changed it up. It’s often hard to visualize what the next season will look like, the one that comes after the melting away.

But though the “hot sun” will forever change things up, melted away things are never the final word. Transformation and renewal hold that honor, and that gives us hope through every shape shifting change.

There is always renewal built into changing shapes. Light, hope, and  peace break forth so that melted things will not be our focus. God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay…

When Frosty left, he said, “Don’t you cry, I’ll be back again some day.” Obviously it wouldn’t be the same Frosty. A different version of life springs forth when everything changes, and we can trust that tidings of great joy are wrapped around that form.

Perhaps we can learn something from Frosty; he seemed to know things. Seasons change and today will not always look the same. If we can trust that our present season is purposeful, and that it involves rest and renewal, we can have hope for today. Just maybe it will give us the courage to “run and have some fun.”  And a little fun is always a good idea.