battle with belief.

by Michael V. Rainey

I grew up as part of the LDS (Mormon) faith.  During my high school years I left the church, no longer believing in the dogma.  It led to a time of uncertainty in my life.  I’d always known the answers to life - they were very easy to look up: 
Read this scripture,
Ask this church leader,
Reference this article and then don’t look into it any further. 

Pushing all that away meant I had to define my beliefs for myself for the first time in my life and while I felt it was the right thing to do, it did worry me.  I was left with far more questions then I could ever answer and had to decide upon my future relationship with a higher power.

I never really decided what I believe.  While I feel no need to be part of an organized religion, people are often surprised to hear that faith still has meaning in my life.  The trouble for me is, I don’t know what I have faith in.  I do believe there is more to this universe then what we see and directly experience, but does that imply the presence of a deity?  I don’t really know.  Maybe.  I have had experiences I can’t scientifically explain and I have no issue using metaphysical terms to label those experiences.  Sure, there is probably a scientific explanation for these things that we just haven’t fully discovered yet, some quantum mechanical phenomenon or psychological oddity that explains away these events.  But I’ve learned not to let it worry me, to accept uncertainty, to accept that it’s okay not to have the answers and that it doesn’t make these events any less meaningful.

But there was a time that I realized I haven’t completely let go of the idea of a deity, because I was furious with him.  It’s when my mom was in the hospital.  Or my step mom rather.  Let me step back here.

My parents got divorced when I was nine years old, and my relationship with my birth mother gradually deteriorated over the years.  She got remarried almost immediately after leaving my father to a verbally abusive asshole.  They were only married for a little over a year at which point he tried to steal all of her savings.  Stealing from a single mother of three is particularly damning (ie asshole).
She next met an Evangelical man named Rick and they started seeing each other.  Rick is a fundamentalist Christian, believing in a literal translation of the Bible and believing anyone not a Protestant Christian was going to burn in hell.  As Mormons, we fell under that category.  They dated for years, and Rick proposed several times to my mother, but always with the caveat that he would only marry her if she stopped being Mormon.  I watched her gradually change to his religious viewpoint as she didn’t want to lose him in her life.  When she was fully converted they finally got married, and Rick moved in to our house and began trying to convert her three sons, my brothers and I. 

My older brother left for college that same summer and didn’t have to deal with it much, but I soon found myself Bible bashing with my mother and stepfather.  If I brought other Mormons to the house, they’d take the opportunity to tell us all we were going to hell and so on.  At the time I felt like I could handle it - I grew up in an Evangelical town, and arguing religion was nothing new for me.  

One Sunday I was getting ready to go to church and Rick asked me to go to his church instead.  I told them I’d gone to their church the week before, so this week I would go to the Mormon church.  He left, then came back a few minutes later telling me they’d canceled the insurance on my car, and if I tried to drive to my church they’d call the cops and have me arrested.  While I don’t believe that’s an arrestable offense, I didn’t want to push it so I stayed home.  But as Rick couldn’t get the better of me, he instead turned on my little brother David, telling him he was going to hell and forcing David to go to his church.  My little brother was twelve at the time, and when I heard about this I decided I’d never respect Rick again.

My relationship with my stepfather and mother worsened and eventually culminated with them kicking me out my senior year of high school.  It was around this time that I left the Mormon church for good.  Granted, this had been Rick’s goal and if I’d left earlier maybe it would have relieved some pressure at home, but I wanted it to be my own decision.  I’m sure I could have handled the situation more maturely, but I was a teenager after all.

About a year later, my father married a woman named Tara.  Tara is an amazing woman; she’s strong, compassionate, patient, and loving.  She immediately took my brothers and I in and loved us as if we were her own sons.  In fact, we very quickly felt as though we were.  When someone says the word mom, it’s Tara that pops into my head now.  I can’t begin to describe how grateful I am to have her in my life, as I’m sure I’d be far more lost without her support, love, and wisdom.
She’s a truly good person, and those are far too rare.  So a few years ago when she had to get heart surgery, it shook me to my core.  You see, Tara had been born with a weak heart (only physically, figuratively her heart is like iron).  It had been a struggle her entire life, many a family occasion had been interrupted by her fainting or struggling to keep her breath.  The time came that she needed surgery to repair her heart or she wouldn’t make it much longer.

Tara tried to remain the rock of the family.  She comforted every one else with the news; she made plans, insisted that this wasn’t going to stop her living her life.  It’s the only time I’ve ever been mad at her.  She wouldn’t stop and let someone take care of her for a change - she kept right on being the matriarch.  She said she’d always been living on borrowed time.  She survived not one, not two, but three serious car accidents not to mention a bout with skin cancer.  There are even photos of her mother pregnant with Tara, living in Las Vegas where mushroom clouds are clearly visible in the background.  I’m no doctor, but that can’t be good for your health.  Because of all of this, she decided nothing could hold her back, which means she’s never been good at resting when she needs it.

But as the surgery drew near, the gravity of the situation began to settle on her.  There was some doubt that she’d even be healthy enough to undergo surgery until the week before.  I donated blood for the event (she didn’t want some strangers blood, that would be icky she said). 
The day came, and we waited.  And like most men in that situation, I tried to put on a brave face.  My two little brothers (one blood, one step) were both with me, and we were all scared.  I tried to be confident: trying to show that there was nothing to worry about, that we shouldn’t be scared because we were in a great hospital with one of the best heart surgeons on the west coast.

But I was scared, and I didn’t like being scared.  And for the first time in years, I thought of God.  I didn’t know if I believed in him or not, but I knew I was scared and that fear turned to anger.  If God existed, then I was fucking pissed at God.  I had had so many people in my life take advantage of me, hurt me for their own selfish needs, treat me like shit.  This woman, who had no connection to me whatsoever most of my life took me in and loved me like her own.  I had a complete family for the first time since elementary school, and God was going to take that away?  Seriously, what the fuck?  God wasn’t a comfort in that moment, he was someone to blame.  Looking back I realize it was because the alternative - feeling the potential loss of my mom - was more then I could handle.
My anger soon turned to my older step brother.  He didn’t show up to the hospital, he was too scared to be there.  It gave me something concrete to concentrate my anger on.  No more abstract deity, here is someone I can point to who is hurting someone I love.  But again I pushed those feelings aside.  I concentrated on keeping my little brother’s spirits up, trying to support them.  

Tara made it through the surgery and was transferred to ICU.  A few hours later, she started to wake up and we went back to see her a couple people at a time.  The relief I felt was incredible, holding her hand for just a moment meant more then I can say.  When she asked to see my older step brother and we had to tell her he still hadn’t shown up, it broke my heart to see her reaction.  She was hurt - it seemed that she felt more pain in that moment then she felt having her chest cracked open hours before. I know Tara, I know how incredibly supportive she is.  If he had been in the hospital there is nothing that could have held her back from seeing him.  And he’d always been a selfish prick, but I figured he might come through when she really needed him.  He didn’t.  To be honest, I still have not forgiven him for this. 

Tara recovered gradually and the family spent a lot of time in the hospital over the next week.  My father barely left her side; the only way I could convince him to go home to sleep in a bed was if I stayed up all night in his place.  We got to know the nursing staff, a group of kind and talented professionals.  And as I walked to the cafeteria throughout the day, I kept passing the chapel.  Finally, I went in.  I didn’t know if I believed in God or not, but I thanked him or the universe or whatever for keeping Tara around a little longer.

The recovery took six months, during which time she couldn’t get in a car, had to stay in bed, and couldn’t lift anything over five pounds.  For an active woman who took so much pride in taking care of those around her, it was a very long six months.  But she got better.  She eventually took in more sons as my parents adopted kids, and she became a grandmother when my little brother and his wife had an adorable baby girl.

I’ve been thinking about this story a lot lately.  Last year, Tara was diagnosed with Leukemia.  They found it early, but it’s not treatable.  That atomic testing outside of Vegas has finally caught up with her it seems.
Somewhere in the next five to ten years we’re going to watch her get weaker and weaker.  We’ve already made a few more trips to the hospital as simple infections now have the potential to be fatal.  We joke about her getting a punch card from the hospital so the tenth visit is free.  Humor helps, we’ve always used humor to diffuse situations in our family, but the truth is we’re all scared.

The initial fear and sadness surrounding the news has subsided with time.  Death is after all inevitable, and you could say we have some advantage as we actually see it coming.  But that initial fear of loss has become something else. 

Now I’m scared that she’ll pass before I have children of my own.  She’s the strongest woman I know, and the thought of my kids never getting to meet her, never getting to have her be part of their lives, never getting to learn from her breaks my heart.  They’d be missing out on so much.  I feel like the world will be missing out on so much when she goes.  I feel like the meager accomplishments I’ve made are due to her guidance and support, and though I feel prepared to take on the world because of the time we’ve spent together, it fills me with disappointment that others won’t get to know the woman I’ve known.  Even stories could never do her justice.

And even after all this time, I still don’t know what I believe in.


growing pains.

At 17, I was at the typical crossroads of a high schooler in America. It was time to level up in responsibility and find my first real job, and I also could finally drive a car...which also meant that I needed to pay for gas. So I sought out a job as a cashier for our local supermarket, working after school and on weekends.

Soon after, I was promoted to Lead Cashier - working the front customer service desk, selling cigarettes and lottery tickets before I was old enough to buy either, and helping other cashiers until it was time to close the store each day. Sometimes this meant working until 2:00 AM on a school night if the money in the safe wasn’t adding up correctly, or dealing with a VERY angry customer that was screaming bloody murder if I chose not to give a full refund for food that I knew was either stolen or not even sold at our store.

Please, please stop yelling at me.
You’re yelling at me about broccoli.

It was there that I also met a guy who piqued my interest from the beginning: in his 20’s, really funny, and seemed to get along with everyone. We quickly became friends. I enjoyed the fact that I could engage in meaningful conversation with a guy who was older, and he seemed to really care about me.

Most guys that I hung out with were either very close friends that I would never imagine dating, or guys that knew me since middle school and labeled me as a forever-geek that helped them with their homework. At work, this man knew the person that I wanted to be, and didn’t have any preconceived prejudices.

He appreciates me for who I am.
I don’t need to ever pretend to be someone else.

At-work courtships are always tricky. You are still straddling the line between self-announced independence and a parentally-determined curfew; splitting your shift between the dedication towards your first job and attempting to show romantic interest in someone. Our relationship started slowly, but it was clear from the beginning that we liked each other more than just friends or coworkers. By the time our dating became official, I was fully convinced that he was the only partner I needed by my side; that my life was complete if he was in it. Early on I knew that I would do whatever it took to make sure that he knew I cared for him, and that I would fight for him.

Our “honeymoon stage” reminded me of those montages at the beginning of RomComs when you only get quick glimpses of happy times in a relationship, complete with an acoustic-pop soundtrack in the background. Fleeting moments of pure joy are then quickly replaced with images of fights, disagreements, and silent treatments.

We were both still really learning what it meant to be in a relationship. Small arguments would break out if I wanted to hang out with my friends on the weekends – I had always invited him to meet them, but he never wanted to, claiming that high schoolers were immature and he would rather just spend quality time with me.

He’s trying to give me compliments, 
trying to tell me how much he cares about me.
But why does this feel a bit off? Am I crazy?

Over-thinking this?
My friends are great - he could learn that quickly.
But he seems so adamant about it.
I don’t want to start a stupid fight.
All he wants is quality time.
How could that ever be a bad thing?

I had also met his parents, which has always been a big deal for me. They were wonderful, and seemed to really love me. His dad one day pulled me aside and said that my impact on his son was one of true happiness and positivity – his son was getting better grades in community college, and seemed to be so much more complete with me by his side.

“You are the best thing to have ever happened to him. Thank you for helping our son.

We love you.”

... ... ... ... ... ... ...

When I heard that come out of his mouth, I felt like my insides were being torn in half – and that surprised me greatly. I put on a nice smile, thanked him and told him that I am so happy to have made his son complete, and excused myself to the bathroom.

It was true: I was really happy with this guy, loved his parents, and was thrilled that I was making a positive impact. Any time spent with my boyfriend alone, or around people in his life, was great. But I couldn’t help but feel a kick to my stomach –

If the roles were reversed,
Mom and Dad would NEVER say that to him.
He is not the best thing to have ever happened to me.
They wouldn’t consider him “helping me.”
They sure as hell don’t love him.

I was so confused and lost that I didn’t know how to figure it all out, so I did what almost any 17 year old does: I stuffed those messy feelings deep down, put on the smile I knew so well, and kept moving forward.

The conversation with his dad admittedly stuck with me, though, and it inspired a conversation with my boyfriend about my own loved ones. I tried to tell him that after 6 months of dating, I really wanted him to meet my friends and get to know my family better. I let him know that I haven’t spent time with my best friends in months, and I really missed them; that my parents really don’t know him that well and would feel more comfortable with my spending time with him if they knew him better.

His response seemed passionate and logical at the time: my parents were overprotective, and no matter the impression he could try to make, they would still not like him; why should he meet my friends if I’m going to college in a few months and will make new, more mature, friends anyway? Why am I focusing so much on forcing him to experience my past, when he just wants to enjoy my future with me?

Everything feels foggy and heavy...
Which way is up?
Is he right? Are my parents right?
How am I supposed to choose between him or my family?

Fast forward a month or so, and I was getting college letters in the mail. I had been accepted by every college I applied to, and was torn between two universities: The College of New Jersey, where I could pursue my passion for Sociology just an hour away from home, or American University, where I would move to D.C. and explore a future in politics and global awareness. I sat down with my boyfriend to discuss both, as my decision greatly impacted the status of our relationship. He made it clear: I needed to stay closer to home, so that he could visit me more often. If I moved to D.C., it would surely be the end of our relationship.

He loves me.
He wants to be near me.
How could I be so cruel as to deny him that?
I want to be close to him too.

And today, it pains me so much to admit: initially that was the main reason as to why I chose The College of New Jersey.

Prepping for college became a sore subject between the two of us – it always ended up in an argument, in him not wanting to hear about anything related to my graduation or what classes I was looking forward to. He started to say I was selfish, that I was making him feel bad for going to community college. I reminded him that I only ever raved about his classes that he told me about, but that he never really opened up to me about that aspect of his life. I wanted to know more, but he would never tell me.

How could I have supported him better?
I should have been more loving, more caring.
I should have listened better,
been more attentive to his needs.
I am being selfish.

Due to our increasingly frequent arguments, work life became stressful as well. He was shorter with me at work and didn’t really hide whenever he was upset with me. I learned to develop a poker face at work (although by all accounts, I was never great at hiding my emotions), and I was able to survive whenever our shifts overlapped by trying to tend to him a bit more often. I had to remind him more and more that I loved him and cared for him, and I had to prepare myself for any snide remarks he would make about me – because he was just lashing out due to his love for me.

He doesn’t mean what he’s saying, he’s just upset.
It’s my responsibility to survive any cruelty he afflicts,
because he doesn’t mean it.

A month after sending my letter back to TCNJ to let them know I was excited to attend in the fall, I had a week where I was putting in lots of extra hours at work to save up a bit more money, while also trying to see my boyfriend more often within territory where he seemed most comfortable. I had to spend a full Saturday working the front desk as lead cashier, and a friend of mine from high school came by to visit. We were class partners in our Sociology course, and good friends because of it. He happened to be in town, and wanted to swing by to say hi and talk about our class; we chatted for maybe 3 minutes. I thanked him for stopping by, told him I’d see him on Monday, and he left. I expected that to be the end of the story.

What I didn’t expect was to have my boyfriend come storming up the aisle, making a bee-line for my station after my friend left. I didn’t prepare myself for him ripping open the door to my space, shoving me against a wall, and whisper-screaming an inch away from my face. I wasn’t ready to know what it felt like for someone to slam your head up against a wall, or the adrenaline of fear that shoots through you when someone hits you, hard. I never knew what it was to be so confused and scared that you are left motionless.

... ... ... ... ... ... ...

After his tantrum, my boyfriend stormed to the break room, and I followed. I let one of the cashiers know that I would be right back, and asked if she could man the Cashier Station in my absence. I then met him in the break room, preparing myself to scream at him...when I realized that he was crying. He told me that he was upset because I was flirting with another man in front of him, that I never took his feelings into consideration, that he was so tired of me being selfish.

How could I be mad at him?
He’s crying. This is not the face of a violent person.
It’s the face of someone who’s hurting.
I wasn’t flirting… but if he perceived it as such,
who am I to tell him his feelings are wrong?

He pressed every emotional button that I had, and I felt terrible. I asked him why he hit me – and he responded with, “I would NEVER hit you, how could you think that?! I just opened up the door and you were in the way; I didn’t see you there until I was in the station.”

Am I losing it?
Did I just make all that up?
I guess… Yes,I must have exaggerated what happened.

He’s right - I’m being dramatic.

I ended up telling my parents what happened – with all of the caveats that I might have just misinterpreted the situation, and he wasn’t that bad – and thank goodness I did. I knew they didn’t like him, and I REALLY didn’t want them to be right, but I also knew that I needed to turn to someone about the fact that I was unsure that my relationship was truly a reflection of love. Something felt bad, and I needed to bounce ideas off of someone I trusted. Naturally they saw all the red flags before I did, and they let me know that this was an abusive relationship, not a healthy one. But for two weeks I didn’t want to believe them.  I spent 14 days trying to work things out with my boyfriend, and trying to prove to my parents that it really was just a fluke. But during those 2 weeks, things only got worse. The more I searched for a healthy relationship, the more I realized just how screwed up everything really was.

This isn’t love. It shouldn’t be this hurtful.
But I might be leaving the one person who will ever love me.

After I broke up with him, he ended up harassing me at work. He found my timecard in the office and carved the words “FUCK YOU” across the magnetic strip so that I couldn’t clock in, and he spread horrible rumors about me to our coworkers. I spent so much time worrying that he would physically hurt me again, and asked my mom to come in with me to speak to my manager about it.

He was not surprised that things were going south, as my ex-boyfriend was buddies with him and had already expressed his side of the story. But when I let my manager know of the harassment, and showed him the time card, his demeanor changed. He first questioned how I really knew it was my ex, and I reminded him that we have cameras everywhere and he could check if he wanted. I told him I didn’t want to be on the same shift as him ever again, and my mom reminded the manager that my ex should actually not work there at all if he is prone to real harassment tactics.

My manager ended up making sure that our shifts didn’t overlap, but he didn’t fire him – the excuse being that if my ex was fired and he knew that I had a part in it, I might be in more danger than I was currently in at that time. At that moment, I was just glad for any small step towards safety.

Things quieted down towards the end of the school year and into summer. My ex and I didn’t talk for months, and I felt like I was learning what it meant to have a healthy life again. I wasn’t prepared for the extra guilt, though, of re-visiting friends after having been separated from them for so long.

I abandoned them.
I don’t deserve them anymore - I left them for months,
How could I beg for their help?
I am a terrible friend.

Here’s a surprising lesson: the people that love you will always love you. Even if you push them away, or you don’t let them help, or you try to ignore them when you’re in pain. They will still love you, and will be there to embrace you when you’re finally ready for it. I expected my best friends to say “screw you” and never speak to me again, but instead they hugged me and reminded me that they were always there for me. They just were waiting for me to see it. I had never felt so loved and yet so undeserving of that love. And they repeated time and time again that if the roles were switched, I would have loved them back as well; this was true friendship and real love. And I was so grateful that they reminded me of how that felt.

As with most soap operas, though, the story didn’t end there. I didn’t end up riding off into the sunset towards college, with a clear head on my shoulders and the confidence that I was headed in the right direction. No, instead I was questioning everything. I no longer trusted my instincts since I had missed so many red flags that other people saw – and I was focused on the fear that I made the wrong move, that all I did was hurt my former boyfriend.

He had reached out to me randomly one day, a few weeks before college was going to begin. It was the standard, “I miss you, how are you, I would love to see you” type of thing. Not at all an apology, but it seemed like a small attempt to make some kind of amends. So I responded back, which started a secret chain of messages between the two of us as we caught up on each others’ lives.

He’s trying to make up for everything - he’s changed.
No one would understand, but it’s because they don’t know him.
Forgiveness is important - I can do that.
People will think I’m being naive or manipulated - but it’s not true.
He’s changed. He’s proving he’s the man I fell in love with.

We wrote to each other in secret, and planned on meeting up in person three days before I was headed to college.

I’m 18 - officially an Adult.
My parents would freak -
it’s better that I just tell a little white lie:

“I’m borrowing the car to see a friend” - yea, that’ll work.
It’s not REALLY a lie.
Maybe a little one, but not really.
They just wouldn’t understand.

I snuck over to his house and parked the car in his driveway. His parents were thrilled to see me, which yet again made my stomach tighten almost imperceptibly, and he and I got in his car to head to the movies. The date was wonderful, and it felt like things could actually be normal again.

We headed back to his house after the movie, and he walked me to my car. We talked quietly for a bit more, and he mentioned how happy he was to see me. He leaned down to kiss me, and I suddenly felt all of the blood leave my body in chills.

He hit me.
He harrassed me.
He abused me.
He hit me. He hit me. He hit me.
I fought so hard to be safe again, to find health again.
Am I about to throw all of that away?

I pushed him away, said it was a terrible idea, and he blew up immediately. The version of him that I feared still existed was hiding just beneath the surface. And I found the trigger.

I raced back home in tears, but thankful that I didn’t allow this to go any further. I entered my house, breathed a sigh of relief that both of my parents were asleep, and went to bed. I woke up the next morning still a bit frazzled, but happy that I was home. It should not have come as a surprise to see my dad in the kitchen making breakfast as he greeted me with:

“So you know you’re grounded, right?”


“You know you’re grounded.”


I didn’t bother asking what he thought I did – deep down I knew that whatever “Dad Powers” he acquired, mind reading was probably one of them. That, and maybe acting on a hunch and driving to my ex-boyfriend’s house to see my car in the driveway while we were at the movies.

“But I’m 18! I’m headed to college in three days!”

“So, then you’re grounded for three days. What do you want for breakfast?”

I ended up letting both of my parents know what happened over the summer, and how things ended, and what I learned the night before. They were beyond pissed, but also glad that I was safe. I soon found a therapist that helped me recognize red flags that I previously ignored, and I leaned on friends and family members to be my instinctual barometers until I could trust my gut again.

After that final hiccup, it felt more like I was limping into the sunset rather than riding towards it. A little bruised, a little beaten up emotionally and mentally, but stronger because of it. Although the relationship was so abusive, I still look back on it as my first “adult” relationship: I learned about communication and love, as well as abuse and control. Fear came in new forms, but I learned to take my “inner voice” a little more seriously. I also discovered what “I’m sorry” can mean, and when it is meant as either truth or manipulation.

- - - - -

It’s been 11 years since that experience, and to this day I still look back on it as one of my most important life lessons. Certainly one of the earliest. There will always be more detail that I could add to this tale; but if you can take anything away from my story, please take away this:

There is a very clear overlap between what I felt, what I did, and what I wish I did. The main takeaway was how I grew. There is no shame in the learning process, and I am continually thankful for the emotional scars that continue to heal over time.
Let me repeat that: there is no shame in the learning process.
Nothing could have prepared me for how I developed beyond those experiences - and I wouldn’t change a thing. But I am glad that I got out when I did.

Personal growth can be hard, painful, and scarring. But it also makes us whole, loving, and empathetic. If you ever wondered why I started this “empathy embodied” community in the first place, you might say this was the catalyst...


Imagine yourself in the middle of a crowd of people with a ceramic pitcher of water cradled in your hands. There is a comforting weight to the vessel – the weight of the water sloshing around, the sense of its healing power. It feels natural in your grasp.

Someone breaks from the crowd and approaches you with an empty cup in outstretched hands. You do what comes naturally, and you pour some water from your pitcher to fill their cup. No sooner does a second figure appear with thirsty lips and an outstretched cup.

Hours turn into days and days become weeks. People continue to approach, asking for that which only you can provide. And you feel amazing. You feel useful, loving, and valued; you are comforted in knowing your purpose. There is such a grounded calm that comes when you realize that you are doing exactly what you are meant to do.

The day arrives though, when your pitcher has offered its last drop. Yet the crowd hasn’t dissipated. In fact, it feels like there are more people gathering now than there were before. Unexplainably, your pitcher feels heavier despite being empty. The endless, growing needs of others only make this realization that much more paralyzing.

You want to keep providing, but you have nothing left to give.

You face the realization that in order to keep giving to others, you must find a way to fill your pitcher. You must make the painful transition from the giver to the receiver, and seek the aid of another with water still left to give.

The guilt comes when you understand that you must stop helping others before you can continue on. You might deride yourself for not being better, or smarter, for not planning, or for not having a larger pitcher to offer in the first place. In the face of the discomfort in asking for help, it becomes awfully tempting to continue on as if nothing has changed.

The crossroads.  

Do you take time away to heal yourself, or pretend everything is ok and keep offering? Pretending might not be so bad. You wouldn’t have to change much. You can go through the motions, and perhaps you’ll even feel like you are still being helpful to another.

But deep down, if you stopped to look in their eyes…you would know that you’re pouring emptiness into their glass.

. . .

You get help. And it hurts. The guilt of being empty may linger, but it becomes more manageable. Maybe even tolerable? The process of refilling feels like it takes an eternity, and you begin to comprehend all of the fear, the uncertainty, the discomfort, and the risks involved in approaching someone for help. But it is only when you sink down into these feelings that the pathway back becomes more visible, and your pitcher begins to fill anew.

And there you return: standing in the middle of a crowd of people with that ceramic pitcher of water cradled in your hands. The weight is still there, and someone breaks from the crowd to stand before you. They hold in their palms a small empty cup. So you do the one thing that comes naturally: you pour out your water, and you help to fill their cup. And it is then that you realize how courageous they were in their asking.


between the lines.

Back in 2010, I was on track to becoming a certified Art Educator. There were plenty of mandatory courses needed for that degree, including a general Elementary Education class. The professor covered standard lessons such as “how to illustrate the color wheel” or “rules about composition,” but there is one lesson that I’ll never quite forget.

In this particular course I learned from my professor that when children enter elementary school, their cognitive abilities are constantly tested. This helps give teachers an understanding of the skills that students walk in with, and areas of improvement that will need to be addressed. As an Art Teacher, one of the many exercises we practiced was to ask a student to draw their backyard (or any type of landscape a teacher might choose). You ask the student to make sure to include the ground and the sky in their artwork, as well as any other details that they deem important.

Depending on the stage of cognitive growth, every child will start with grabbing a blue crayon and scribbling at the top of the page. They will then pick their favorite green crayon and will scribble on the bottom of the page. Seems logical enough. The sky is up top, the ground is at the bottom. One can argue that this is factual and makes complete sense. But what remains between the blue scribble and the green scribble is almost certainly blank. The otherwise pure whiteness of the page is only filled with the other singular details that make up the landscape, like a house, a dog, their family, etc.

It’s not until children reach a certain point where they make the realization that the sky extends down from the top of the page, and touches the ground. It is not until later on in their education that they can understand why the sky is everywhere instead of floating above everything else that is drawn.

It is a beautifully simple exercise, and one that gives any Art Teacher a great sense of accomplishment when they can see their students’ mental transition – when they can witness the “A-Ha!” moment and their student artists fill most of their artwork with the blue crayon, completing the gaps.

The reason that this modest task has stayed with me for so many years is because it also portrays an equally wonderful and simplistic metaphor. We meet colleagues and friends and family members that are all at different stages of understanding the world. Sometimes we meet someone who professes their views of the world (insert: politics, sexuality, racism, relationships, etc.) to reveal that they only see the the blue and green scribbles. We may hear their viewpoints and want to scream: “BUT THE BLUE IS EVERYWHERE, NOT JUST ON TOP!” We want to show them that their understanding of the world is still so limited. We can see it so clearly, and are overcome by our own understanding of Truth that we cannot or do not choose to see the world from their eyes.

Equally so, our own views of life and all that it encompasses may be unwittingly naïve. We express opinions as all-knowing, and get extremely frustrated when someone inserts their own questions, views, and unwelcome ambiguity into our minds.

The fact is, the blue and green scribbles are not wrong. They are just a very unique perspective on the world, and the limitations of those two marks leaves out all of the mess that is disturbing to think about. Ambiguity is hard. Seeing the world beyond black & white (or blue and green as it were), and welcoming in all shades of grey is uncomfortable. Sometimes we’re not ready for everything else. Sometimes we begin to set the rules for which questions are allowed in our lives.

A young student evolves beyond the scribbles because he or she remains curious. They continue to learn, and continue to absorb information. Once connections are made, they start to see that the sky is not always blue, but rather sometimes it’s purple, or pink, or red. Sometimes the ground is green, but what if it’s a cityscape? What if it’s a beach? What if it is the void of space itself? What crayons do you choose when suddenly the world reveals itself as something bigger than we could have ever imagined?

Curiosity is the key to understanding that the world is rarely so simple as two scribbles on a page.

We are in an era of hot debate. American politics are taking the front page, racism is more than just a cultural hashtag – it is a very real issue that we cannot shy away from, and gender identity continues to be explored and understood in new ways each and every day. We cannot limit ourselves by the two scribbles we have known for a lifetime. We must remain curious, remain open, and remain kind. We must continue to evaluate our own views and try to determine what makes us uncomfortable, or what makes us inquisitive. And as members of many different communities, we must allow others to explore the same spaces. We may end up with very different landscapes, but I would venture a guess that in doing so, our worldviews will be more beautiful than we could have ever thought possible.

So with this I invite you to grab a piece of paper and a pack of crayons and ask yourself: what exists between the scribbles on your page?

louis & me

by josef lemoine.


When my wife and I were girlfriend and boyfriend, we watched a UFC match at Hooters with some close friends. We waited outside in line for an hour, maybe an hour and a half, for a table. We finally got one of those tall circular ones you can stand at, close to the register. The place was packed with people in line crowding the entryway right behind my back.

My girlfriend and our friends settled into our tall bar stools, ordered food and drinks, and watched men kick each other’s asses on a huge TV.

It wasn’t long before some large dude rested his foaming glass mug on our table and stood next to me. His arm brushed against my shoulder, his leg against my hip. There they remained. He set his palms wide on the tabletop and stared at the same TV we were watching. Not once in that moment did he acknowledge me or anyone else at our table.

I stole glances at his black goatee, the name of a city tattooed on the side of his neck, and his group of friends clustered behind my back with their shaved heads, oversized white T-shirts, and arms sleeved with faded ink.  

My girlfriend started to rise from her seat, jutted her jaw, and said, “Oh, hell no.” 

I grabbed her wrist and told her to calm down, to let me figure this out. “I got this,” I whispered.


I’d taken Tae Kwon Do as a child. My mom insisted I learn self-defense like she did from my lolo, her father in the Philippines. I’d gotten really good at all the forms and the contact-free sparring, but I never committed myself to fighting. During matches, I never kicked or punched anyone as hard as I could’ve, afraid that the harder I hit, the harder I’d get struck back.

So, I never got hurt in class.

Not once.

And the only time I hurt a classmate was when my master asked me to pick an opponent. I chose a doughy kid my age; I think we were ten or eleven at the time. He’d invited me over to his house once. He was sweet and generous, welcoming me to play with any of his toys. I remember his home was super quiet and his parents only let him watch PBS, which was unthinkable to me.

During our Friday afternoon match, on the padded floors in front of our class, he approached, throwing light kicks and soft jabs that never quite reached me. Moments later, I threw a roundhouse kick that sent his sparring helmet flying. He bent over and cried. His dad put an arm around his shoulders and guided him away. I never saw either of them again.

When my dad congratulated me, I quietly smiled, even though I knew I was a coward, even though I’d picked on someone I was sure I could beat.

I never wanted to fight again.

Yet, I hung in there a while, just long enough to fake a bad cold and chicken out of the test that would’ve earned me my black belt.       

Life after Tae Kwon Do wasn’t much different: I avoided confrontation when I could. And when threatened, I ended after-school face-offs with swift, perfectly placed kicks to the gut.

But by the age of twenty-nine, I still hadn’t been punched and had no idea how I’d react to a black eye, a bloody nose, a knockout. My growing fear was that I wouldn’t survive either of those. That’s why I started studying mixed martial arts. I found an ex-bouncer/ex-college football star who taught an eclectic array of fighting styles out of a storage unit by the Pasadena freeway. I began classes just a week before that night at Hooters. Right away, I learned a series of chokes and brand new strikes that excited the hell out of me, that made me feel invincible.


So when I looked up at this guy with the tattooed neck, standing at our table at Hooters, I devised a plan: I would politely ask him to step away. If he tried anything, I’d maneuver behind him, wrap my legs around his body, and clamp my arm around his neck until he lost consciousness. I imagined pulling him down on top of me, as if his weight and the force of the fall would have no effect on my thin frame. I imagined using his body to shield me from the kicks and blows and possible knife thrusts I expected his friends to make. That was the plan.

My nerves oddly calmed, but I remained afraid—not so much of getting beat up as being seen as less then a man by my girlfriend, my friends, by groups of perfect strangers. I secretly believed tales of my cowardice could travel from Hooters and across the state, maybe the country. I was sure that would ruin far more than a broken rib or mangled face.

So, I inched my chair closer to the guy and increasingly pressed my elbow against his arm, my knee against his thigh. We were really close to each other.

The guy finally turned to me and said, “Hey, me and my friends ordered some drinks and food. Is it cool if we set our stuff here?”

I mustered the courage to look him dead in the eye and told him that my friends and I had ordered food and drinks as well. “You can keep your stuff here until ours arrives,” I said, “but once our food and drinks get here, you’re going to have to take yours elsewhere.”

Then he said something that took me back. He said, “Just so you know, I’m not trying to invade your territory or anything.” And in my mind, that was exactly what he was trying to do.

But I continued to look him in the eye and said, “Then you and I don’t have a problem.”

He went on to tell me how everyone at this Hooters knew him because he and his boys came here all the time, so if we wanted anything all we’d have to do is ask and he’d hook us up.

I thanked him but told him my friends and I were fine.

Then he asked me my name. I told him it was Joe.

He nodded and said, “That’s my son’s name.”

Then I asked him his name and he said it was Louis.

I said, “Crazy. That’s my dad’s name.”

We both nodded and turned away to face the fighting on the big screen. I thought about my dad and this man’s son. I thought about how this man might be the type of person I could hang out with. I saw us sharing a few beers on a back porch, sometime after midnight, trading tales about being a father and being sons, sharing stories about fighting and retreating, maybe figuring out along the course of countless conversations what it truly means to be a man.

I caught my girlfriend staring at me. I closed my eyes and raised a hand off the table to signal that everything was cool.

And by the time I glanced back to where Louis had stood, then over my shoulder for his friends, they were gone.

the sunday weirds

I’ve never been a stranger to anxiety. Back in middle school I would get so worked up in the morning that I couldn’t stomach breakfast before the bus arrived. It was such a frustrating routine that my parents had to find something I could keep down, which ended up being those “Carnation Breakfast Essential” powdered chocolate packets that you stir into milk. This helped me digest some nutrients before school, and it put a decent bandaid on the issue.  But as anxiety has shifted and changed form throughout the years, it has still remained a constant presence in my life.

Nowadays, that old anxiety comes around on Sunday nights as I think about the workweek ahead. The small, annoying, poisonous questions start to creep into my brain:

  • “Did I not prepare enough for tomorrow’s meetings?”
  • “What if something happens that I can’t handle?”
  • “Did I forget to do something?”



And those questions inevitably press my Shame Buttons:

  • You can’t handle what’s about to come your way – get ready to fail.
  • They’ll realize you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re an imposter.
  • You haven’t earned your place in the world.

I’ve done a good amount of research on this specific anxiety, and discovered that this affliction has many nicknames: “The Sunday Blues,” “The Sunday Spookies,” or “The Sunday Dread” (I adopted “The Sunday Weirds” myself). I then, of course, discovered a large collection of Buzzfeed-style articles that gave less-than-helpful advice:

  • Relax and Distract
    (Easier said than done, guys)
  • Schedule something to look forward to
    (As an introvert, this just adds another level of anxiety to look forward to)
  • Do 30min-an hour of actual work.
    (Keeping that to just an hour is a joke)
  • Do Sunday work on Saturday, to make Sunday more fun
    (That just means I will have two Sundays)
  • Be more social on the weekends.
    (Again: Greetings! I’m an introvert and that sounds like my personal Hell)

If any of these approaches have worked for you in your life, that’s rad, and I’m totally pumped for you (and way jealous!). But maybe you’re like me, and the simple “how to” advice has left you wanting more. Maybe they’ve only made your Sunday Weirds worse. I can now say that after a ton of trial-and-error, there are only two tactics so far that have worked for me: talking about it, and writing about it. And when I say “worked” it doesn’t mean that my Sunday Weirds are gone completely, but rather – enough anxiety is eased to make the day manageable.

When quiet moments turn into toxic breeding grounds for anxiety, I always turn to my husband, Vin, and announce: “The Sunday Weirds are here.” This helps him know that I’m distracted, stressed, and need some help getting out of my funk. We are then able to talk through it together – and usually, the act of vocalizing my fears/feelings/thoughts diminishes a good percentage of that anxiety. Rarely do we come to a solution or “perfect fix,” but allowing myself to have a sounding board makes me feel less alone.

Whenever I want to work on my Sunday Weirds alone, I grab the closest pad of paper & pen and start writing. I will write about anything that is taking up space in my brain: my work to-do list, my fears, my feelings, anecdotes, or personal epiphanies. But I physically write them out to release some of that mental real-estate. This, paired with a daily journal that I keep which requires that I write something positive about myself each morning, seems to have provided better tools to shift my perspective.

In both of these approaches, I try to turn towards the shame as opposed to away from it, as painful as this can be. Because if you’re like me, “The Sunday Weirds” are just little moments of dread that shine a spotlight on Shame Buttons. No amount of social activity, to-do lists, or relaxation can erase that deep feeling of fear that we are not worthy of love and belonging; which is why the distraction advice that is modernly paired with pop-culture gifs only make us feel worse. So instead of burying our shame-induced anxiety, let’s just name it for what it is: human fear, and the yearning to feel connected. Let’s face our Shame Buttons and put more energy into exploring the question: what will help me heal?

How do your Sunday Weirds manifest themselves? How do you wrestle with the Shame Buttons that are pressed in your life?


milk, eggs, & trust.

The best definition of Trust I ever heard was during a course led by Brené Brown, where she quoted it as: "Choosing to make something important to you, vulnerable to the actions of someone else."

The man in front of me hoisted his large plastic basket straight onto the conveyor belt, full of groceries. And instead of emptying the contents out for the cashier to scan, he turned to me and just quietly said, “Hi.” Caught off guard, I saw his kind face and warm demeanor. So out of instinct, I smiled and responded with my usual, “Hi, how are you?”

“My son just got fired from his job, and is now living at home with me. I don’t know what to buy for him… I just don’t know how to help.”

Suddenly, I looked at his un-emptied basket on the conveyor belt, a mix of frozen foods, vegetables, and pizza. In that moment, the unorganized heap of groceries made complete sense; it was filled with food he knows his son likes, as well as ingredients he knows he needs. The mess of items hastily thrown into the basket reflected his need to provide, as well as the fear that he was not providing enough.

I went through a myriad of emotions in a split second as the cashier began to scan his cart: confusion, sympathy, and the yearning to hug someone I didn’t know at all. So without knowing the perfect thing to say or the right way to respond, I just said,

“That must be so hard. I’m so sorry he lost his job. But if it helps at all, you got probably the best pizza they offer here. And I’m from New Jersey, so I know pizza.”

And almost immediately, tears started to well up in his eyes as he launched into the entire story: how his son was having a tough time finding a job in the first place, has been struggling to figure out what he wants to do in life, and how it has been an unending series of unfortunate events. And how, as this boy’s father, he is desperately trying to figure out how to help.

As we stood in line all I did was maintain eye contact, listen and nod. I felt so unprepared and useless because I didn’t have any answers to this man who was twice my age. But I also felt like he just needed someone to listen – so that’s what I did.

What I recognized in that moment was that he was entrusting me with some deep-seated vulnerability with which he was struggling, and there was no way I was about to break that for him. So as I stood in line, watching this man pay for his items and pack up his things, I couldn’t help but notice his relieved smile as he left saying:

“Thank you. I hope you have a really good rest of your week.”

“You as well”, I replied, “I’ll be thinking of you both.” And I meant it. I’ve continued to think about him, his son, and so many others that have shared a broken piece of their soul. Yes, this sort of interaction was not a one-off occurrence. You’d be amazed at how many times I’ve stood in line and someone has said to me:

“I just found out that I have cancer.”

“My daughter has been sick for a really long time.”

“My husband just divorced me.”

“The bills just won’t stop coming, and I can’t pay for any of them.”

These have all been cries for help, from people who are looking for connection. And sometimes the best connection you can offer someone is just being present and listening to their story.

That man along with countless others whom I’ve met chose to be vulnerable. He chose to make the worries weighing heavy on his heart vulnerable to my actions. I could have turned away; I could have ignored him; I could have smiled and pretended to try to find something in my purse. But instead, we had a connection. We had a moment in time where we both felt less alone in this world. I helped heal something in his heart, and he helped heal something in mine.

Trust is such a tricky thing. It’s so complex, and it embeds itself into every conversation we have with others. We filter our responses and interactions with a person based on how much we feel we can trust them. This act of diluting our expression happens regardless of how long we’ve known someone – for a day, or for a lifetime; that filtering process happens instinctually. But sometimes we find ourselves begging for connection when the burdens of life hit us, and we will reach out to complete strangers to help us with our pain.

Because in the span of one trip to the grocery store to stock up on chocolate and toothpaste, a stranger taught me so much about my own struggle with vulnerability. He taught me about the gift of trust. And he taught me about the best moments that humanity has to offer. All I had to do was actively see him holding out an olive branch, and receive it.

Sometimes we leave our emotions in a messy heap in our basket, unable to organize them because we’re still overwhelmed by the fact that they exist. And all we can muster is a “Hi” to a stranger, and hope that the stranger looks up, acknowledges us, and says, “Hi, How are you?”.

And when those days find us, we need to know that our mess is okay. Our inability to think clearly is natural, and our asking for help can guide us to the peace we seek.

parsonage pretty face

The phrase “Parsonage Pretty Face” is a running joke in my family. It’s the term we throw out when we are describing the act of putting on a good face when you feel like shit. You don The Face as you exclaim “I’m doing AWESOME” when in reality you want to run home, throw your bra across the room and crawl into bed. It shows up when you're at some important event and are irritated by every encounter you have. It gets plastered across your face when you need to avoid involving others after a particularly nasty argument with someone.  You use it to shield yourself from an abusive coworker that knows your “shame buttons,” and presses them daily to make you feel small and worthless.

Parsonage Pretty Face is the act of pretending like everything is totally, unquestionably, fine.

I’m a pastor’s kid. And as a pastor’s kid, each house you live in is a house that is owned by the church. I’m not going to go into the politics of church life – all you need to know is that the house that the church owns is called The Parsonage. And my mom was the one at the pulpit, preaching in front of a large audience of churchgoers every Sunday.

As a pastor’s kid, I felt like everyone that attended church was watching me to see how well behaved I was. Because if I misbehaved, well… that was clearly a direct reflection of how good of a parent my mom was (or so my child-logic convinced me). So I tried my best to be a mini-adult, mimicking the grownup behaviors I saw around me. I was polite, well behaved, engaged, and totally, unquestionably fine.

And thus, the Parsonage Pretty Face was born.

The Face is truly a double-edged sword: I’ve survived interviews, awkward encounters, and crappy days by practicing The Face. I’ve made it out of some pretty awful moments because of that skill. At the same time, it’s exhausting. The Face is not meant to be a permanent fixture of one’s personality – it’s a temporary survival tactic. And throughout the years, I’ve found myself slipping into Permanent Parsonage Pretty Face.

I can’t help but see my friends and peers utilizing their own permanent Face. You see it in carefully-crafted Instagram photos, celebratory Facebook posts, or witty Twitter feeds. You see it in meetings where someone gets bulldozed in a presentation, and somehow manages to maintain that plastered smile that says “I’m totally, unquestionably fine.”

So, what impact does The Face have on our generation?

As far as I can tell, it only divides us. The Permanent Face only makes us less human, less connected, and less whole. It makes those around us feel like they’re the crazy ones; that they’re the only ones struggling with life. And that somehow, if we actually admit to our flaws and our emotions, that we’re broken or wrong for doing so.

The Permanent Face is the act of trying desperately to portray ourselves as perfect.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired. I’m tired of putting on The Face; I’m tired of spending so much mental energy worrying about what others will think of me if they realize: “HOLY SHIT! ELISSA IS FLAWED!” And I’m tired of prioritizing perfection over authenticity.

I had been together with a wonderful man for three years before I experienced a variety of quarter-life-crises, which resulted in my splitting things off with him. After a year of being apart, we managed to reconnect and chose to give our relationship another chance. When we came to that decision, it was also clear that we needed a “Come to Jesus” moment – a time to put all cards on the table. A time to talk honestly about all the issues we were too scared to explore during the first stage of our relationship.

I decided that I was going to jump into the deep end, and risk complete vulnerability by enlightening him to the fact that I wasn’t actually perfect – that I had secretly hidden all of these major flaws and broken parts of my soul for years. I put it all out in the open: every fear, every insecurity, every shattered piece of my personality. After my dark and difficult monologue, I was expecting his jaw to be on the floor – either that, or for him to run for the door for good. But instead, he looked at me and lovingly smirked, “I already knew all of that.”

Instead, it was my jaw on the floor. I couldn’t wrap my brain around the idea that he “already knew all of that,” and could have loved me not despite my flaws, but with all of my flaws. That conversation completely changed the way we approached our relationship – and I believe, it’s what set the groundwork for our marriage that came two years later.


This is a big reason why empathy embodied was born. We spend so much time practicing The Permanent Parsonage Pretty Face that we have forgotten the fact that we are loved – and worthy of that love – along with our flaws, not despite them. We have lost sight of the notion that authenticity is what will make deeper connections.

empathy embodied is an exploration of human imperfection. It is the act of sharing stories to help us realize that we are not alone in this world. It is a place where we can connect at the most basic and yet most important level: authenticity. It is a home that embraces all kinds of mess – and does so without any judgment.


This is my promise to you, dear reader:
 I will strip away my Permanent Parsonage Pretty Face,
so that you can explore what it means to be perfectly imperfect.
I will share my mess, with the hopes that you can find comfort with your own.

So, if you would like:
Participate. Whether that means reading, or responding, or contributing, or questioning.
But however you choose to participate – do so authentically.
Do so unapologetically. Do so with the goal of finding a deeper connection.


This is a messy, confusing, frustrating, terrifying journey – because it’s raw and unknown. But maybe – just maybe – if we can all actively agree to practice radical empathy, we can find the wholeness within ourselves that we’ve been searching for.


P.S. What’s your experience with using The Face? Is it helpful? Hurtful? A strange mix of both?

I would love to read your story below.