The Thief of Joy

The other day I found out that my ex-boyfriend got married. 

What followed in my office cubicle is best described as the Mr. Krabs meme personified. I barely even noticed my co-worker asking to borrow my stapler.

Aside from the expected bittersweet feelings, it was like a new mark of adulthood. Prior to age 25, breakups consisted of overcoming the idea that your ex would date someone else or perhaps go to college across the state. But now, there was overcoming the idea of your ex getting married. Like married, married.

It added new meaning to rapper Mase's lyric, "I wanna see you happy even if it's not with me." There was no mistaking that we both needed to move on. Who knows what kind of trajectory we would have found ourselves on had we tried to make a failing relationship work. 

What was once a teenage love affair grew into two young adults trying to hold on to the nostalgia of the good ol’ days. But they were long gone, I knew that though I struggled against that logic. Learning that your first love is not forever is hard. It was painful letting go and as a result of slowly ripping that band aid, it was perhaps tougher than it should have been. Ultimately the years of on-again, but mostly off-again all came to an end with a prideful and perhaps petty "Ok" text message. Such a dismal conclusion to such a major relationship in my life.

After the shock and reminiscing wore off, what lingered weren't bouts of asking “What if?” Instead, there was an ongoing fight to resist the need to compare. 

What has really changed for me since then?
Have I found my happiness?
Crap, I'm single.

Milestones in the lives of others-- especially those once close to you-- can cause you to doubt your own. And that's exactly what I was doing. Theodore Roosevelt wasn't lying when he said, "Comparison is the thief of joy." Until that moment I was celebrating the last day of my summer internship while preparing for my final year of graduate school. I was also excited about finally receiving paperwork for my upcoming counseling field placement, which would seal the deal for graduation in spring. If you know my testimony, then you know the hurdles I've jumped, the weeks of eating Ramen noodles I swallowed, and the tears I've shed to reach this point. 

My life was not to be in competition with my ex's to see who would win the breakup down the line, but still I was seeing my accomplishments as sub-par or less than.

Our journeys are not to beat our friends or former lovers to degrees, careers, or engagements in order to prevent ourselves from feeling behind. What it comes down to is that everyone wants it all in life, but for each of us that "all" will be different. In her book Can I Have and Do It All Please?, speaker and evangelist Christine Caine wrote, Having it all does not mean we can have anything we want, or that we can have everything simultaneously.”

The fulfillment of that "all" will come in God's timing. I knew that I needed to trust in that and not see my ex or anyone else’s joy as a sign that I was lacking joy in mine. It's easy to be guilty of this when it appears that graduation, wedding, and baby announcements are showing up constantly on Facebook. In reality there are no striking surges in these milestones, instead we hone in on them because they highlight what we feel is a void in our lives. Be mindful that comparisons can often cause us to covet things before we're ready.

The Bible says in 1 Thessalonians 4:11, “Make it your goal to lead a peaceful life, mind your own business, and keep your hands busy in your work.”

God’s “all” for me won’t be found in expectations from Instagram memes detailing #RelationshipGoals or Thought Catalog articles telling me what I need to accomplish by 30. And it certainly won’t be found in the act of comparing my life to others. In short, my “all” will be found in minding my own business and my own journey. Keeping your eye on someone else's lane can cause you to see your life through a filter of inadequacy. 

For the times we do fall into this trap, confess those feelings to God whether it's jealousy, frustration, impatience, or upset. Ask Him to give you joy during whatever season of life you're in. Comparison is the thief of joy, but God is able to restore.

—Tara Pook

That Time I Was Mad at God

I was mad at God. Perhaps not cursing-the-sky-with-clenched-fists mad, but still mad.

There was a time I thought this was a sin punishable by His wrath, but there were no lightning bolts from the sky and I obviously wasn’t struck down to the fiery pits of hell.

What happened instead was a revelation. I realized that honesty in my walk with God is crucial. How could I hide my emotions from the one who gave me the capacity to feel? If He knows my innermost being, as well as my thoughts before I even think them, then why not state the obvious? Open communication is key to any loving and effective relationship.

But at this particular moment, I wasn’t feeling very loving toward God. The past seven days or so were hard in several aspects of my life. I was fighting disappointment and a growing weariness while waiting for circumstances to change in my work, school, and family life. Trying to juggle these areas came to crash as the waves of tragedy filled the social media and news timelines.

The deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas police officers hit close to home as an African American and the daughter of a retired police sergeant who grew up around police officers. The complexity of my feelings had me at a loss for words as I saw that tragedy could have struck my family on either side. All I could cry out was Jesus. Not as a churchy programmed response, but because I saw the desperate need for a savior.

By Saturday I felt so drained emotionally and spiritually that I spent most of the day in bed. As my professor often says, "Good self-care is good ethics," and my body was crying out for rest. I could no longer put up a ‘front’ at work or at my summer internship as if everything was ok.

While I stared at the ceiling in bed I wondered, “Where are you God? Where are you in all of this?” The prayers of Diamond Reynolds, Philando Castile’s girlfriend, were also in my thoughts. “Please Lord, you know our rights. We are innocent people.”

In the midst of those cries, it seemed like God was silent. Were my prayers only hitting the ceiling? As I began to challenge God, I felt my anger boiling within me until I finally spewed the only prayer I could muster:

God I don’t know what other words to pray. I don’t know what other scriptures to quote. If You are who You say You are, then do something.

 Well, maybe I should have done a quick duck in case a lightning bolt came my way.

I kid, I kid.

But in the days that followed I had to come to grips with some of the flaws in my relationship with God. The pain that life can bring often clouds our vision of God’s inherent goodness. It was as if I saw God sitting high upon His heavenly throne, capable of fixing my life with just the wave of His mighty hand… and yet He does nothing.

Sure I believe God is powerful, but did I also believe Him to truly be good in the midst of hard times? Did I believe that God was active and effectively listening to the cries of His people?

During Sunday service at the Bridge Church in Brooklyn, a pastor gave me a timely reminder that God is on the side of the hurting and the oppressed. “God is not deaf to the cries of the hurting,” he said, “If anyone understands, it’s Jesus.”

Though Jesus willingly took on His fate, He too died at the hands of an unjust system. I don’t know of any other god from any other faith to be this close and empathetic to the pain of his people. This resonated with me in the midst of my personal struggles and those of black people in this country.

I came to see that what I was experiencing wasn’t quite anger toward God. It was a feeling of abandonment. On the cross Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And perhaps that is how many of us have been feeling. We are wondering where God is, and why He seems to have let us down.

But even after His body was beaten down and broken, Jesus knew His pain was not punishment and that God never left His side. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” He ultimately said before taking His last breath on earth. Just like Jesus, our life is always in God's hands.

In one of my favorite books, The Shack by William P. Young, God poses a question to the story's protagonist who had suffered a great loss, "When all you can see is your pain, perhaps then you lose sight of me?" It was as if the question was posed directly to me. All I saw was the lack and the disappointment in my life. I lost sight of God and the promise of abundant life, and instead saw Him as the target of my angst.

The story line in The Shack continued when God speaks of Jesus, "Don't forget, the story didn't end in his sense of forsakenness. He found his way through it to put himself completely into my hands."

And that was the key to the answer of my sense of abandonment. I had to find my way through displaced anger at God to find His peace and reassurance on the other end. My feelings of abandonment were not on God's part, but on me. Which is why I believe I knew deep down to bring those harsh emotions to him.

We'll never truly understand the complexities of life's tests and tragedies on this side of eternity, but there is one truth that I can hold onto to sustain me. In spite of frightening and changing times, God is immutable. And as my favorite Psalm says, his lovingkindness is everlasting. Though I may feel abandoned or angry, He is always waiting for me to recommit my spirit into His hands.

Tara Pook

No Regrets

Today is my 25th birthday and I find myself thinking about regrets. This may sound like a gloomy and depressing stream of thought, especially during a celebratory occasion, but it’s not. At least not anymore. 

My past regrets used to have such a suffocating hold— condemning me with feelings of shame or embarrassment that were difficult to escape. At times I would lay in bed restless as I replayed conversations or arguments where I thought I should have listened more, spoken less, and vice versa. Struggling with regret was much like living with a tomato-throwing audience on the inside of me. There was no need for haters as I often did their job myself.

Perhaps my biggest regrets lay with the things I wish I had done. I have no stories of fighting the bully or walking out on a much-hated job. Rather than stand up for myself, I just saw it as my cross to bear. I liked to play it safe because it was well, safe, and confrontation felt like the opposite. There were many times I repressed my truth or diluted my strength out of consideration for the status quo and the feelings of others. I’ve replied, “I love you, too” because girls were supposed to want the happily ever after. I second guessed my dream of moving away to DC for undergrad thanks to someone who didn’t believe in their own dream. 

My biggest regret had been not living out my truth, and now that I’ve found it, no one can pry it from my grasp. No longer will I say yes to things to things I don’t actually want because as Lena Dunham once said, “It’s really liberating to say no to sh— you hate.”

As a recovering perfectionist I’ve since learned to be cautious about regretful thinking, because it comes disguised as healthy reflection. Joan Chittister, author of The Gift of Years, once wrote, “Regret, one of the ghosts of aging, comes upon us one day dressed up like wisdom, looking profound and serious, sensible and responsible.” It may seem innocent in the beginning to look back and wonder how we all got to where we are, but the aftermath it evokes are more like punishment than innocent reminiscing.

Should I have walked away from my first love before our relationship became sour? Did I need that tattoo? What if I applied to my dream college rather than listen to the voice that told me I could never afford it? Why didn’t I stand up for myself against that boss who would belittle me?

I could try to go on and on until I fall into a deep abyss of missed opportunities and unwise choices, but it would all be a waste of time. Chittister best explains, “Regret demands to know why I did what I did in the first place. And I don’t know.” Whatever response or excuse I come up with will never be enough. “Why?” is one of the most frustrating questions because the best answer you come up with still doesn't satisfy. And that's because it won’t change a thing about the past.

Our power does, however, lie within our perspective. The flaws in my personal theology prevented me from accepting forgiveness and unconditional love from both myself and God. But it took a divine revelation of His grace to understand that I no longer have to live with regret because I've been redeemed. I am free from the bondage of what could have been, because I have hope in what will be.

Life, from the time we begin to grasp right and wrong, is a continuous journey of redemption. I am proud of who I’ve grown to be not solely because of my accomplishments, but because of how I’ve bounced back after falling short. I know what it means to endure and without learning to grow from my mistakes, the foundation of character would be like straw. Unreliable and lacking in strength, as it swayed wherever the wind blew. To regret a single thing would be an insult to my growth. 

My mistakes have put me in a position to win, as paradoxical as it sounds. That’s the hand of God and His magnificent artistry of turning lemons into lemonade, sorrow into joy, and tears into laughter. And I am forever grateful as I wake to see a quarter century. I greet 25 full of expectation and free from regrets.

Tara Pook

Photos by Jessica Hughee

Nothing Will Make Sense Until It Does

Ok, I admit it.

I stepped away from writing on purpose

Lately my life has felt like scattered puzzle pieces, but each from a different box set. And so I figured that I would wait for them to make sense before verbalizing them. It was evident even in my journaling that I didn’t quite know what to say about my current predicament. Pages were filled with generalized cliches or churchy sayings that we tend to use to encourage ourselves through hardships.

God will never give you more than you can handle.

No rain. No rainbows.

Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.

They weren’t authentic, so they were not worthy of being published. Part of my journey to transparency has been to peel back the layers of my once treasured facade to reveal even the mess that laid beneath. I began to search myself and wondered if this was rooted in a lingering sense of perfectionism, a belief that I needed to have it all together. But no, this was different. 

Have you ever been on a journey so unexplainable, so nonconventional that not even your friends would understand? Has it ever been difficult to even formulate a neatly packaged short story to tell? 

That’s where I am. In a season where I'm being pruned much like the way Jesus spoke of in John 15. There were parts of my character and of my spirituality that I thought had grown and matured, but now I find myself being stretched even further. I am learning new levels of faith, gratitude, and obedience in God. These lessons sound easy on paper, but they came with a price. I’ve had to go without at times, part ways from cherished friendships, and even look like a straight up fool. Some mornings I marvel at where I believe I’m going in life, and some nights I’ve admittedly cried for the way things used to be.

But rather than sulk in a prolonged sense of sadness or loneliness, I’ve taken comfort in what has become my motto lately:

Nothing will make sense until it does.

This is the complete antithesis of the controlling planner I used to be. I was accustomed to having a tight grip on the reigns of my life and for situations to go my way. During the few times when I didn’t like my circumstances, I did something about it. Rearrange or manipulate the chess pieces to work in my favor. Solutions were just a push of woman-power— or a call to Mom and Dad— away. Plain and simple. When things went awry I’d just roll up my sleeves and like a corny salesperson I’d say, “My name is Tara Hughee, and I specialize in results.”  

Moving from sunny south Florida to Harlem, USA humbled me in more ways than one. I came here with a few hundred dollars to my name, loads of credit card debt, but an acceptance letter to my one and only school choice in tow. There were days I’d rejoice for free lunch in the office kitchen at my graduate assistantship because it meant I didn’t have to eat the Cup of Noodles I had in my lunch box instead. At times I would barely have extra spending money, but my heart would overwhelm as I’d reach for my favorite lipstick and find a $20 bill my grandmother slipped in my makeup pouch. 

I used to wonder why God would let me come to New York only to “suffer.” Here I was in the big city of bright lights and I was roughing it while working paycheck to paycheck. Wasn’t this supposed to be the part where all my dreams came true? It just didn’t make sense at all, until well, it did.

God has a way of breaking away the pride that clouds the view of our innate need for Him. “Surrender to a higher power,” the mirror read in my old bed room with dry erase marker, “We are human. We cannot do everything in our own strength.” 

We are not brought to this realization as a form of punishment, but instead to get us on the same page with God. Life is meant to be a partnership or a collaboration with Him. Liken it to a film and He is the screenwriter. He has a divine understanding of the story, plot, and narrative of our lives. God can make even the most painful, boring or seemingly useless subplots work together in a miraculous way.

What I thought was suffering, was actually growing pains. I am learning to bear not literal fruit, like apples or oranges, but fruits [or results] of the Spirit like love, joy, and peace to sustain me in the midst of dysfunction. All along God was in the midst of my chaos, which was evident in my seemingly little moments of provision [the free lunches in the office, the $20 bills tucked away behind my concealer]. It was just last year that I barely had enough money to afford my textbooks for classes. There were times I completed assignments without a single reference to the reading. But when my grades returned, it was the first time I had ever received straight A’s in my collegiate career.

Moments like this reminded me that I’m supposed to be here in NYC. I didn’t need to fret about how my puzzle pieces would fit together because God’s Word had reassured me that it would. 1 Corinthians tells us that He chooses what is foolish in the world to shame or confound the wise, and that He chooses what is weak in the world to shame or confound the strong. I’m learning that the seemingly nonsensical often indicates the onset of the miraculous. I’m on a nonconventional journey that’s showing me that in my lack, He is my abundance.

I feel like I’m finally surrendering my puzzle pieces. Because from my view, which is at times clouded by my circumstance, I can’t see the final result. And so right now none of it will make sense until it does.

—Tara Pook

The Embarrassing Yet Freeing Thing About Crying In Public

There’s something particularly embarrassing yet freeing about crying in public, especially for someone who tried so hard to shield any emotion that embodied vulnerability. Yet there I was on Lenox Avenue: face red, tears streaming, and snot running onto my overpriced American Apparel scarf. Luckily for me, New Yorkers are used to seeing everything from the extremely irate commuter to the strange street performer. So a girl walking down the street with ugly crying face didn’t seem too uncommon.

And though I type this feeling emotionally exposed while nursing irritated eyes from all the rubbing I did, I’m proud of myself. Being tough is so restricting, and I believe that each tear I let roll down my cold-stricken cheeks melted away that barrier I built. I once believed it was made of brick, but it was actually made of dry wall.

Things have been changing rapidly for my family and me lately. Those who know me personally can attest to that. Usually I would embrace this welcomingly, but this isn’t the type of change I generally crave like Lay’s potato chips. Instead, this is the type that will make you ask God to pump the breaks or maybe change routes.

During all of this I’ve never taken the time to breathe, never taken the time to heal, especially from some of the changes that hurt. I’ve had relationships fade, with some lingering bitterness. And as I look out to my future, sometimes it can be hard to laugh without fear as the Bible extols of the envied Proverbs 31 woman.

“Take it all in,” my mom constantly said as I packed my boxes, preparing to leave my family’s home in Florida for the final time.

“Yeah, yeah I see it,” I’d reply. But deep down, I kept burying those feelings of wanting to hold on to the way things used to be. I never liked long goodbyes, but my mom on the other hand possibly minored in them in college. For me, long goodbyes mean tears. Tears would mean I was fragile. And fragile, I refused to be seen as. Take it as a side effect of my pride.

But what a lesson it was for me to suddenly break on a crowded Harlem street. In between sniffles I finally admitted to God how hard this has all been. I expressed that I know my family and I are moving in the right direction and on to divine endeavors, but how sometimes doing the right thing isn’t void of trials.

Just the previous night as I said my prayers, I asked God to humble me. My pride and seemingly tough exterior have gotten in the way of so much in my life— more authentic relationships, more authentic spiritual life, and a more authentic self.

Well, as the saying goes, be careful what you ask for. You may just end up bursting into tears in public.

Tara Pook