Clare Saumell VanderWeele

essays on living

On Survival vs. Sacrifice

I was wrong. I sat down at my computer and wrote a blog post about being in the trenches, telling the world about the year that had felt chaotic. A year where I could barely catch my breath. A year where I believed I was in survival mode.

It wasn’t an unfounded belief. A lot happened. I screamed a baby into the world, I emptied my bank account into a new house, I coaxed my anxiety-ridden first grader into a new school, and I nursed a baby into healing after a host of afflictions ranging from a fractured skull to oxygen-starved lungs and buckets of snot and vomit. All that along with the usual craziness of balancing full time jobs with housework, cooking, family and friends, playtime with the boys, and much-needed sleep.

It felt like survival, but I had been prepared for that.

My words of wisdom for the year – picked days before the new year kicked off – were from Isaiah 43:2 – When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. These were words I knew I would need to sustain me when things got hard; the knowledge that I wasn’t doing this alone.

I lived and breathed these words during every contraction, every x-ray, and every choking fit; during every dark night when sleep never came; during every moment when I felt stretched past my limits. The water was deep. The trenches were muddy. But He was with me.

Preparing for survival seemed like a worthy thing to do, but I’m beginning to believe that it came with a very limiting perspective. When I believed I was “merely” surviving, I failed to see how I was actually thriving.

In the last couple of months of 2018, the word “thrive” began popping out at me everywhere I turned. I scrolled mindlessly through my Instagram feed and there it was. I crossed paths with random companies with “Thrive” in their names. I had many conversations with new and old friends where the word popped up inadvertently time and time again. Thrive! The word grabbed onto me, and I was instantly thirsty for it.

If 2018 was a year of survival, I thought, then I want 2019 to be a year of thriving.

I was inspired. I wrote off 2018 as the messy, muddy year I believed it to be and starting dreaming about all the ways I could thrive in the new year.

But then, a week before the end of the year, my wheezing 10-month old baby – still in the throes of RSV – spent the entire night screaming every 30 minutes. I laid him between me and Mike and tried to soothe him, but every nudge and creak disturbed him. He cried out in pain that I could not see, hear, or feel. We tried everything to make it better. More Albuterol. Fresh diapers. Warm milk. More bouncing, rocking, humming. Nothing worked. Every minute was exhausting.

But as those cries reverberated in my ears, I wearily recognized what I had forgotten when I dreamed of thriving. A realization that there are always going to be nights like this, for years to come. Nights when the clock doesn’t seem to move. When the next breath is hard to come by. When your heart and back ache equally. When it feels like a struggle to survive and you don’t know what tomorrow will look like.

If I thought I could kick off the new year with grandiose forecasts of thriving and leave those brutal nights (and days) of survival behind me, then I was setting myself up for failure.

And if I was really being honest, I knew that real survival looked much more desperate and traumatic than what I had been through in the last year. Survival – of the kind where you are fighting for your life, your mind, your soul – is piercing. It’s when you have to remind yourself to breathe, when the fear and anxiety cripple you, when the grief rips you apart, and when your throat is raw from screaming. I had been through that in years past. This was not that.

It dawned on me that not only was I not, in reality, fighting for survival, I was actually thriving in ways I had failed to recognize.

I birthed a tiny human life! And he’s growing and laughing and exclaiming “uh-oh” at everything he drops (or throws). We moved into the most beautiful century-old house in a welcoming, community-rich town among wonderful friends. My anxious little first-grader is reading books and designing machines and – miraculously – making friends. Every hospital bill is a reminder that we are grateful for our health and for great doctors and for enough money to pay them.

How is that simply surviving? How did I not see all along that I was already living out the word, the concept that I so desperately craved?

Perhaps, perhaps, it has not been survival at all, but instead a series of small sacrifices. And in those sacrifices has been great thriving, soul-stretching growth, and astonishing love.

If it seems like I am in the trenches, it is only because I have become a seed, planted in the dirt to bear fruit. It may be muddy, but I’m not the only one down here and it is certainly not without light.

And if it seems like the water is deep, it is only because I am being fed more than I know what to do with. But I do not thirst, I am not drowning. If I just trust, if I don’t look down, if I’m not overwhelmed by the wind, I am walking on water.

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

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1 Comment

  1. Great introspection, Claire. Well written!

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