Thoughts at Thirty: A Journey From Vanity to Obscurity

Thoughts at Thirty: A Journey From Vanity to Obscurity

Guest Post by Rachel Blackmon Bryars

Invisible obsure pride
Invisible obsure pride

This is the last month I will spend as a 30-year-old. It is also the month after a pregnancy-related incident sent me to the hospital for four days, where doctors said things like, “This could have been fatal.” Both of these events have me thinking a lot about time these days. Specifically, what was I doing with my time when I was 20, and what am I doing with my time now? How have my heart and habits changed over the years, and has it been for the better? Melodrama aside, if I had died last month would God be pleased with how I spent my time?

Life is a structure we build, piece by piece, that takes the shape of what we love and what we spend our time doing. Our heart attitudes and mental habits are the raw materials we use during construction. Our worldview is the shade that colors the whole thing.

Ten years ago, I was spending my time building a structure that looked like a monument— a monument to me. Since my heart attitudes and mental habits were mostly self-centered, my monument was flimsy, built of cardboard. I loved the Lord, but my worldview centered on a quest for personal grandeur and fulfilled dreams instead of the pursuit of a faithful response to a loving God. You could say my cardboard monument was coated in deceptive glitter.

At 20 years old, I was a college student who poured my time into activities that brought me a sense of accomplishment: Earning good grades and awards, playing varsity soccer, heading up the school newspaper, interning for the local TV station, and auditioning for modeling jobs and roles in movies and commercials in Miami. The activities themselves may have been fine pursuits, but I placed too much emphasis on how puffed up they made me feel. I invested very little time in service. Some friends of mine spent a lot of time helping others, but their efforts seemed a bit boring. I went on mission trips and completed service projects for school, but mostly, I pursued activities that fueled my inflated sense of achievement.

When I graduated, I sent out audition tapes to TV news stations and even a reality TV show (hey, I may be 30, but technically, I am a millennial who relates all too well to some telling stereotypes of our generation). Out of my options, I chose the job I felt had the most promise and prestige because it was in a larger-than-entry-level media market. I was the lowest person on the totem pole as the weekend morning reporter, but I aspired to quickly move up, move to a larger station, and work my way into reporting for a national news network. I was certain my life was destined for super-grand things since I was such a special snowflake.

Pride Goes Before The Fall

As the Virginia leaves turned to crimson and soon after I celebrated my 22nd birthday, I found myself hunched down in the empty hallway of a local high school where I was reporting a story. I pulled out something I had stuffed in my purse that morning and intentionally not yet examined. Through the dim morning light that trickled in through the windows, I stared down at a pregnancy test. It was positive and I wore no ring.

In the months that followed, it was as if God held a flame to my cardboard monument— a purifying mercy that felt agonizing. I left my job and moved to Washington, D.C. to start a family. For the first time in my life, I spent the majority of my time in service to others— a husband and baby. It was a huge shock to my system and I alternated between outbursts of anger and depression. The structure of my time may have changed, but my heart attitudes, mental habits, and worldview were still largely the same. I kept looking over at the ashes of my monument, wishing I could rebuild it. I often let my mind jump on a negative train of thought that always led to despair: “This can’t be my life, this just can’t be my life.”

As my daughter grew into a toddler and another baby arrived, the lonely, monotonous days seemed to stretch into infinity with no end in sight. I felt the world was passing me by. I adored my kids, but felt sidelined into oblivion as a stay-at-home mother in a city where the first question is often, “Where do you work?” I decided I would look for a full-time job and start re-building my resume.

If Anyone Wishes to Come After Me, He Must Deny Himself

I began interviewing for work I thought would make me feel important. Still, something quiet and powerful whispered into my heart: “Come follow me. Take up your cross, don’t just tolerate it. Deny yourself. Join me in the unlovely place— washing dirty feet and meeting needs. No one else sees you, but I see you.” I felt a little ashamed that my “cross” was so lightweight compared to true suffering, but I still felt the acute pain that comes with parting with what we love. It hurt to spend my time in obscurity because I worshipped achievement. Perhaps God was urging me to let go of everything I wanted to be: talented, important, accomplished, and special and truly follow Him wherever it took me— even if that meant I went no further than the laundry room.

I wondered at God’s strange work. I had friends who longed to be stay-at-home mothers but felt called (or had) to work outside the home, and here I was, longing to work outside the home feeling called to cheerfully continue being a stay-at-home mother.[1] It seemed God was less concerned with how we spent our time as much as with how our hearts and minds were sanctified as we went about our work. It was clear my heart needed the humbling that came from working hard at something that brought no accolades and no attention. It seemed God wanted me to be at peace with my invisible position at home to transform my heart from its hard, self-centered posture into something more malleable and more content with loving and serving my family.

Be Transformed By the Renewing of Your Mind

The journey toward joy begins with a transformed heart and mind. Some essential new habits helped in the process. I began to replace my negative thoughts with thoughts of gratitude, such as, “I’m thankful my desire for a fulfilling career is a first world problem in the first degree.” Instead of focusing on the laboriousness of at-home work, I started paying attention to the little joys and pleasures, such as the ability to stop at a playground on a whim mid-day, or my alone time during naps. I began to suffocate envious thoughts that threatened to sap my soul and focused on taking sincere delight in other people’s accomplishments. I meditated on the truth that I am a speck in the scheme of time and eternity by reflecting on 1 Peter 1:24—“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers, and the flowers fall.” I also began to look for the humor that heals. Only a sprightly humorist could create toddlers, so on disaster days, I forced myself to laugh about the moments of insanity. Lastly, I refused to miss a week of Grace DC Presbyterian Church’s (PCA) mother’s study group in downtown D.C., where I gleaned strength from the wisest group of women I have ever known. Their companionship and godly examples sustained me more than they knew.

As my heart attitudes and mental habits started to change, so did my worldview. Loving and serving God by loving and serving others was transformed from a dull distraction into the main event. I’ll never forget standing in my kitchen one night after a long day. The kids were well fed and had been cozily tucked into bed. The house was clean and the laundry was done. I was exhausted, but a surprising thought sprang to my mind: “I enjoy this.” Thanks be to God.

Forgetting What Lies Behind and Reaching Forward

As we have added more children to our family, I have found more and more joy in the letting go—in losing my life to gain it. In the past eight years, I’ve pictured God asking me, “Rachel, if you never did much in your life besides be a faithful wife and mother, would you be okay if you knew that was what I had asked of you?” At first, the honest answer was no. Slowly, the answer has become yes. I still struggle. Some days I want the glittery cardboard back. Mostly, I want to be more like the men and women of our faith who have learned the secret to joy reflected in this excerpt from Bernadette Farrell’s hymn, “All That Is Hidden” (1957):

If you would speak of me, live all your life in me. my ways are not the ways that you would choose; my thoughts are far beyond yours, as heaven from earth: If you believe in me my voice will be heard. If you would rise with me, rise through your destiny: do not refuse the death which brings you life, for as the grain in the earth must die for rebirth, So I have planted your life deep within mine. All that is hidden will be made clear. All that is dark now will be revealed.

I marvel at how much can change in ten years and how much God can change a heart. These days, I still spend the vast majority of my time working in the home and began homeschooling my oldest daughter for the first time this year. These vocations would have felt completely undesirable to me ten years ago. Now, this work is the source of my greatest joy, even when it gets rough. I feel like I am building something lovely and solid with my time because my heart posture has changed. In God’s loving mercy, there have even been cool opportunities for outside work now and then that involve a different goal than personal grandeur.

I wonder what the next ten years will bring. I wonder what else will change. I pray this will remain— that God will lead me to follow his blueprint, not my own. Even in the humbling, there is no other path to peace.

Rachel Blackmon Bryars is a writer and a mother of four (soon-to-be-five) children under the age of eight. She enjoys humor that pokes fun at millennials. Follow her on Twitter @RachelBryars.

[1] This is by no means meant to be a case for all mothers to stay at home. My personal sanctification has required much humbling, which has required being a stay-at-home mother. We are all on different journeys with different callings.