Living with cancer introduces survivors to the “new normal” reality of losing many trusted life anchors. Too many of us are on the journey with cancer, or healing after treatment, or coping with the loss of a loved one from this disease. Today, another storyteller, my friend Tamara Hill Murphy, shares thoughts about life changes that play havoc with our dreams and the definition of an ideal life. Sometimes, letting go of our dreams for normal sets us free to embrace God’s surprising plans for blessing.
Letting Go of My Wish Dreams for a Normal Life
by Tamara Hill Murphy
A week after we moved our family from upstate New York to Austin, Texas I dreamed that I was floating untethered in space. It was a nightmare actually. One that occasionally repeats itself even now, two and a half years later — sometimes during the day.
This may sound a bit melodramatic to anyone who’s ever moved away from home — so most people in the history of the world. But for someone who’d lived forty years in the same town as parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, a 1,735 move across the country creates a sense of disconnect from the familiar.
Our family learned a new normal in August 2011 when we moved from upstate New York to Austin, Texas. If you’d asked us two months earlier where we planned to live for the rest of our lives we’d have told you “right here, thank you very much.” Looking back I can see the transition as more gradual, starting with life changes that played havoc with our definition of an ideal life.
For starters my husband was laid off from his job. The job was a place he and I had pinned most of our hopes for job fulfillment. Not only job security and income, but we expected that particular job to be the place his gifts would be recognized by people we loved and trusted. Since he worked at a church, we pinned our hopes to that job to give him a vocational calling, income, and a community of friends for us and our four children. That’s a lot of weight to hang on a job — even a church job. Probably to someone who didn’t know us it sounds a bit foolish. I prefer to think of us as idealistic.
In his book, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, the Nazi-imprisoned German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes living according to idealized expectations for this sort of life as “wish dreams”. As a ministry leader I’d quoted his exhortation for years: “We must let our wish dreams be shattered by Jesus.”
There’s a firm line between recognizing our needs and desires as good gifts from our Creator and turning those good gifts into idols. Admitting I’d crossed the line between the two snapped me out of my wish dream state. I’d idolized my ideals for our future with friends and family in that city and in that church.
I also learned again that the gap — the untethered space — is the place that Jesus saves us. We have been saved in this surprise journey between New York and Austin. The road from there to here. The life that is our new normal.
When we visited Austin as a family for the first time we discovered, among many wonderful things, that our “new normal” for this season included a family-sized emotional meltdown on a rhythm of approximately every other day. During our first year here, we kept that rhythm pretty strictly.
You can probably imagine what two depleted parents, four emotionally-drained teenagers navigating a new city, new schools, new jobs and new relationships might look like. Every other day — almost like punching a time card — we’d hit a wall where our desire to feel like we were on a great adventure and our desire to curl up in a ball in our old bedrooms and watch Spongebob ran smack dab into each other. It wasn’t pretty.
Along the way God has clearly met our needs — sometimes in bits and pieces and other times like opened floodgates of gift. I wouldn’t even want to try to prove it, but I’ve learned it to be true over the course of our twenty-three years of marriage: Submission of my heart makes room for God to bless us in the most surprising ways.
In our new normal, our Father is writing the most amazing tales in and with our lives. He’s weaving us together with the dearest cast of characters. They are funny and smart and wounded and generous. I’ve learned that idolatry of my wish dreams for a good life created a scarcity mindset. The belief that I could only love living in one place with one group of people and no other. In his forgiveness and healing, Jesus redeems the scarcity of my either/or mindset to the abundance of also. He met us in our old home and old job, also he will meet us here in this new place.
My son — 17 at the time — wrote these words as a reflection on the day we arrived exhausted, scared and very, very sad to our new home in Austin, TX:
“When we were pulling into Austin, I had been envisioning the movies where the hero gets to his destination and it fulfills all of his wildest desires. But those happy endings are really just imitations–and more crudely made–of the happiest ending of all, when we arrive at our true Destination, where no good thing is lost and no distance can keep us from perfect communion with one another and with our Maker. That Place will truly fulfill all of our wildest desires, not the desires of our minds, but deeper, the things which our souls have been longing for since we were made. So I guess this is the end of our journey. For now. We are home, but not Home, and I am content with that. For now.”
I could not say it any better. No matter the circumstances, the Jesus who saves us in the gaps of what we’d hoped for and what is, holding us together until the day we join him in our forever home where all we’ve accepted as normal will be made new.
About Tamara Murphy:
Tamara Murphy was born and raised in a cynical, smalltown Northeast still harboring a penchant for hope and big ideas. Tamara now lives in the bright city of Austin, Texas with her audacious and often-homesick family: two daughters, two sons, one husband.
Tamara believes in the power of the written word. She reads and writes words to make friends with the ancient, present and future. She writes to encourage both you and me to see God’s presence through daily practices of art, liturgy and relationship.
Please visit and follow Tamara’s blog over at This Sacramental Life.