Make Room for Your Whole Self - Clarissa Middleton (Podcast Episode 16)
If you can't bear the thought of going to work one day longer, it may be time to re-examine the unique factors that make you you.
Philippians 4:6-8 (NRSV)
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Jeremiah 1:5 (NRSV)
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
2 Corinthians 13:5 (NRSV)
Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test!
Proverbs 18:16 (NRSV)
A gift opens doors; it gives access to the great.
2 Corinthians 1:8 (NRSV)
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.
Hebrews 10:16 (NRSV)
“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,”
Romans 8:28 (NRSV)
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
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Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.
Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work
LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.
MR: I’m Mark Roberts
LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.
The job you have today is determined by many factors, some of your choosing and some beyond your control. Your upbringing, your educational opportunities, and the economy at the time you start working all play a part in the work you do today. At the other end of the spectrum, your innate gifts, your passion, and your personality all have a lot to say about whether you'll find joy in a particular job, or whether you'll end up feeling bored and stifled. If you can't bear the thought of going to work one day longer, it may be time to re-examine the unique factors that make you you, and determine whether your current work makes space for all of your God-given parts to flourish.
Our guest today, Clarissa Joan Middleton, found a way to embrace all her different parts, and integrate them into a life that is truly fulfilling. Clarissa Joan, thank you for sharing your story with us on the Making It Work podcast.
Clarissa Joan Middleton: Hello, thank you for having me. I'm really excited to speak with you all today.
LA: We are so excited to hear your story. So start us off, tell us when did you start thinking about this question, What really makes people feel fulfilled in their work?
CM: So I had the fortunate and unfortunate circumstance to start thinking about what would make me happy at work very early on. I was raised by my great-grandparents and because that is a unique circumstance, they instilled in me very early on, thoughts, and concepts, and ideas, and just thinking in intention about how I could sustain living well beyond their care. And so very early on, we talked about an agenda that we had for my life, that I would go to college, that I would get married, that all of my children would be born within that marriage, that I would have a great job, and that I would be able to live a good life through work, and through making good money, and through healthcare that came in alignment with all of that. And so being in this...
LA: So even as a young child, you were thinking forward to "This is what my life should be like."
CM: Very much so, very much so.
LA: So tell us what happened. How did you find your job that you ended up getting? Was it fulfilling? Was it not fulfilling?
CM: So in college, I ran into a friend one day, and he told me about an internship program. They had a new track, which was a corporate finance track and you could decide which track you wanted to go into.
So I was like, "Well, I think I'm gonna try this corporate finance for the summer, because if I try this corporate finance for the summer and I don't like it, I can always apply for a banking job in the fall." Now, at this time, I didn't know that I would graduate in the worst economic recession known to man since the Great Depression, but [laughter] these were my thoughts. So I applied for corporate finance position, internship position. I got it, they loved me, I loved it. I accepted the job at the end of the summer, because by the time we went back to school, Lehman Brothers and all of the other..., Bear Stearns were all already on their... Starting to make their descent. And so it was like, "There we go, this is the path we're on."
And that next summer, I was working at my corporate finance position, very happily with the finance part, but it would be then that I would discover that it wasn't totally fulfilling all the parts of me. Right? That there were parts of myself, over time, that I had sort of put on a back burner, that were now coming to the surface for various reasons and I needed to give attention to those parts of myself.
LA: Yeah. So tell me more about that. How did you come to realize that this job that you thought... You had been led to, maybe wasn't all the way fulfilling?
CM: Well, I think boredom [laughter] was the first thing. It's like, "Oh, I'm getting done all of my work by Tuesday." So I spent a lot of my time in that position, crisscrossing New York City, talking to mentors at different offices, interviewing people. I would make meetings with the top executives at the company, ask them for work, ask them for projects, and I got put on a lot of special projects that normal people in that... Well, my ranking wouldn't have got put on, just by the sheer... Just by my work ethic alone. I was just devouring the work that they were giving me, and so that was one thing. It was like, "Okay. I'm sort of like... I'm growing faster than this mechanism actually has capacity to serve me." The other thing is that I started to get really sad. Most of my childhood, the arts was a very big part of who I was.
I was a dancer, I started dancing when I was three. I started writing poetry as a form of personal expression in middle school. We spent a lot of time at shows and music shows, and I played the clarinet in high school, and I danced in high school, and I did musical theater. And all these things, in that whole entire time of my upbringing were humming in the background as hobbies. My great-grandparents were like, "These are hobbies. These are things, these are fun things that you sort of do with your time, but these are not ways in which you actually... We can guarantee that you'll make a good living, and that this agenda that we have set for you will succeed." And I think that that's what happens to a lot of people. Right? They've been told that some parts of them work and some parts of them don't work, and that they have to figure out how to highlight the parts of themselves that work, even though they love the other parts, that may not fit into some perfect box or that may be more risky in the sense of how you'll sustain your well-being as an adult.
So I don't think that my great-grandparents were gung-ho about me being an artist. So they pushed me, they gave me encouragement in a certain direction, and then they made space for me to do the other things, as much as they could. And when I graduated college, there was no space for my arts. When you're in school, you can go to the extracurriculars. Right? Like you can join the Glee Club, you can join the band, you can join the dancers, but when you enter the world, you cannot go join Broadway. [laughter] They are not opening their doors like, "Yes, come on in and play with us." You'll find yourself almost trying to have to build a life and make room for yourself, and it's much harder after school. So the world gets bigger, but your capacity to maneuver in it gets more narrow.
And I felt the weight of that tremendously, especially given the... Everything that was like put on me of like all of this, "You're gonna be great, you're working so hard, you're doing all these things so that you can live well." And then I'm sad? [chuckle] It's like, "We reached the dream, I'm 22, I have one of the most amazing jobs, I live in the most amazing city, I'm engaged to be married, and I'm sad? Why am I sad? What is going on here? Why do I have these feelings? What is going on in my body? Why am I having anxiety? Why does something feel off?" Everything that the world told me was the perfect life for me, is... I'm living it, but the content of my character doesn't feel well in the context of my lived experience, and I would learn later on that that's called cognitive dissonance. And so, I was experiencing cognitive dissonance and I didn't know how to get myself out of it, and that's when my work began. Because I just couldn't believe that all the time, money, energy, and investments that my family had poured into me could amount to such a thing. I was in shock.
And I think that it was that... For some people, some other people might have just dealt with it, they might have just said, "Oh well, this is normal. I don't have to feel well about what I do." Or they may not have had the means to explore different capacities in which they could shift to wellness in their current reality, but I did. And so, I just... I seized the opportunity.
LA: Yeah. So you say this is where your work began. Tell us what that work looked like.
CM: So it first began with me going to my manager. There was a board member at our company who became a mentor of mine, and one day he came to me and he said, "Clarissa, I think that your story and how you overcame adversities to end up here, where you are, is a great story to tell other children. And I'm on the board of a foundation here in New York that makes a 10-year commitment to kids from lower socio-economic statuses, and so if you would come for the summer and volunteer as a college prep mentor, that would be awesome."
So I went to my manager and I said, "Hey, can I go on... " I think it was either Thursdays or Fridays, "To this camp during the summer and work?" I was like, "As long... " And he's like, "Your work is always done, you're always on time, you've been doing a whole bunch of other extra things, and still maintaining what you need to get done, so yes, sure." And so, I did that and it was... Oprah said years ago, she knew where she was supposed to be because when she got there, she felt at home. She didn't have any extra nerves or there wasn't this big, giant wall in front of her, making her feel like it was some great feat. She just... She showed up and it just felt right to her. And the moment, the first time I sat down at a round table with these high school students, to talk to them about who they were, about who they wanted to be, and about what they saw for their future, it was like the heavens opened. And those kids, at the end of that summer wrote me letters, so many letters saying, "No one's ever talked to us like you talk to us." I get chills just thinking about it. They were like, "No one's ever asked us the questions you asked us. No one's ever done that." And I just felt like, "Yes God, whatever this is, help me continue to do it, whatever it is." And that was the beginning. It was through giving away the goodness that I had, that God then showed me... Expanded the goodness that I could give in the future.
LA: This is a fantastic story. Clarissa, you said that the stories you were telling yourself about your work, is some of what got in the way of your appreciation of your work. Can you explain a little bit more about that?
CM: Yes. I had told myself what I had been told, that art and creativity fit in a certain box in my life. And so, I put it in that box. And I never explored it ever again. And I only explored my analytical side, and my business side, and my communication skills to the degree that it worked in the professional, non-entertaining, non-artistic, creative world. But something would happen that would force me to tell the truth to the lie. And in my second year of work, in 2010, my brother had a traumatic injury. And it was the first time that I felt hopeless. Right? That I felt hope was beyond my control. Before I was like, okay, like I had started the volunteering with the kids, I was sad, but I felt like there was still something that I could do. Right? I could go do this and I'm moving, and I'm shaking, and I'm keeping busy even though I don't feel well. Well, this was the first thing that would happen that was like, "Oh, you can't fix this."
"There's nothing that you can contribute to this situation that will make it better." I mean, we did not know if my brother would live, we did not know if he would speak again, we didn't know if he would remember who he was or who we were. This was just devastation to the highest degree at the time. And I was paralyzed emotionally, spiritually. And in that, all of a sudden, I started writing poems again. Now, I hadn't written poems... I wrote a couple in college, but I really hadn't written them in abundance since high school. And these poems just started pouring out of me and it was healing to me, and it was cathartic, and it was between the poems and going to church that... And really starting to think about Scripture in a different way, that really pivoted me in a new direction.
And so, what I started to do was every Sunday when I would go to church, I would start to take notes. I had never taken church notes before. And I would just take notes, and this lent itself into my brother's incident, and how I would recover from how that emotionally impacted me. And between those notes, and meditating on Scripture, and expressing myself through my poetry, I revived the part of myself that had been lost in becoming the professional college-graduate fiancee, all of the things that I was told I needed to become and enjoyed becoming, but they weren't all-encompassing of who I was.
And I think... Maya Angelou has a quote that says, "You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot. It's all there. And everything influences each of us." And because of that, I try to make sure my experiences are positive. So what happened in this crisis with my brother, and what I predict will happen with a lot of people who can see it through this lens in the current pandemic crisis that we're in now, with people having to live a different way and experiencing life in a way that they've never experienced before, is that a part of myself that I had been suppressing, and not dealing with, and not giving room to breathe, rose up like never before and it healed me. Right?
Like, it was, I couldn't heal my brother, but being honest about how I felt about that, and then praying over how I felt about that, got me to cognitive consonance, which is... It gave me almost what... Paul talks about in Philippians, like, the peace that passes all understanding. Right? And in that, kinda like what Maya is saying, make sure all of my experiences are positive. It doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt, it doesn't mean that it doesn't challenge you, but that you see it in a way that it's working for your good. And Paul talks about taking all of our experiences to the Lord through prayer and supplication. And then after that, he says, "And then after you do that, think on the good things."
So I found this weird way, like my body's... Like my natural state sort of started to do things that I would have never done under any other circumstances, or I wasn't prioritized doing under any other circumstances. And all of that, which is a part of me, started to create harmony in my life, because I was now giving room to breathe parts of myself that I had sort of imprisoned before. And I think that that's a key part, just making space and room for all of yourself. I mean you have to have that, no matter what. And we get to that sometimes through challenges, because there's sometimes no other way of getting to that, that priority.
LA: Mark, I wanna bring you into this conversation, 'cause I'm so interested in what you think about this verse that Clarissa mentioned, "Bringing everything to the Lord in prayer and supplication." It sounds like that's some of what she did with her journaling experience, but I don't know if we usually think of bringing our experiences of our work to God in this way, or our experience of boredom to God in this way. Mark, what's been your understanding of this writing?
MR: Well, it's a great question. So as one who grew up in a Christian family, in a good Christian Church, I was taught absolutely to bring parts of [chuckle] myself to God, but... So my story, it wouldn't be exactly the same as Clarissa's, but it's like it, in that there were parts of me that... And I don't mean the sinful, awful parts of me that I need to repent of and leave behind, but the parts of me that are, oh, I don't know, they just don't fit in the normal sort of church paradigm. Those were not things I would as often bring to God, and certainly work, for me, would be part of that. But also, that's what I find, Clarissa, is so wonderful about your story, is it was also these creative, delightful, childlike parts of you that God gave you, and are precious, and wonderful, and yet, because they didn't quite count in a certain way, for a while you didn't express them or engage in them.
And so, it was really through the pain and the horror of what you experienced with your brother, that you sort of were... It's like you were able to open up and not only yourself to claim parts of you, but realize that God gave you those parts and delights in those parts, and you can share that with him. So I love it, how you said it was sort of taking notes, and Scripture, and poetry. So it wasn't just the Scripture, it wasn't just... You took good notes in church. It's like these different parts of you were coming together in wholeness. And yeah, I just think that's such an encouraging example.
CM: Yeah, I think one of the verses that really resonates with me, when we start to think about who we are as people and giving meaning, and purpose, and value to all of ourselves, and making space for all of ourselves in the world, in our lived experience, I think about Jeremiah 1:5. Where it says, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you before you were born, I sanctified you." And obviously, this is God talking to Jeremiah about him being a prophet, but we can take that for ourselves and say there are things flowing from our heart.
And I think that this is what Maya is saying, to... And Maya says it, Paul says it, when he talks about examining yourself to test whether you are in faith. And Dallas Willard, one of the forefathers of the spiritual formation movement, talks about the range of activities and intentionality of things that formed us. When you really start to take stock of who you are and pay attention to yourself, then you start to have the need to make space for the goodness of yourself to be expressed in a continuous form, and not to be barricaded unnecessarily or suppressed unnecessarily. And if you believe that, right, if you take that to be your truth... And this is what Scripture meditation did for me, it helped me override some of the things that I had been told that weren't serving me anymore, with God's word.
The Bible says, "Our gifts will make room for us." And one of the greatest gifts we've all been given is our own lives, and our own volition, and our own personas, and our own characters. And we marry who we are with who God is. It becomes clear that God has been very intentional about the design of us. And so, we need to intentionally seek God and God's word as the manual for how we build out that expression of Godliness in ourselves and in the world.
LA: Yeah, and you mentioned two verses from Paul's writing. The first, "Examine yourself" is from First Corinthians. And then, you mentioned this other verse from Philippians 4, Verse 7 when you talk about the peace that passes understanding. That part of your examining of yourself got you to this new level of... Past cognitive dissonance into peace. Mark, I wanna bring you and I wonder if you've ever thought about this relation between these two different passages of Scripture, the self-examination and the peace that comes afterwards.
MR: Well no, not specifically those verses, but I think it's a fascinating and helpful connection. And it's really an invitation to a deeper level of humanness and openness to God in our lives. In examination, which isn't... And I know Clarissa isn't talking about a kind of a, oh, I don't know, a self-preoccupation, but really a deeper looking-in and opening-up of oneself. And in that openness, then there's more, in a sense, more space for God. God can claim any space God wants, [chuckle] but in a sense, we're inviting God into those spaces. And I was also struck by... There's another Pauling text. So this is kind of... It's a threefold Pauline moment, but in the early... In the first chapter of Second Corinthians, there's this absolutely amazing passage where Paul, after greeting the Corinthians says, "I don't want you to be unaware of the affliction that I experience or we experience in Asia. We are utterly, unbearably crushed with the spirit of life itself."
Now, a couple of things are really striking there. And one is, okay, this is the Apostle Paul. For many the greatest Christian hero ever, and number one, he felt that he experienced that so that was real to him. Number two, he's sharing it. And so, as Clarissa was open to experiencing these things, Clarissa, you're also... Your willingness to share, that gives encouragement to others and freedom to others who have had a similar message. I grew up in kind of a similar family. My grandparents were hugely important to me, and my grandmother's rule of thumb is that sadness is never okay. And so, I was given so much and yet there were limitations, and it's taken some while, and some growth, and a lot of God's grace for me to help grow out of that, but the Biblical witness is, yeah, it's be open to self-examination, let God into every part. And don't be ashamed or afraid of the hard emotions. Not only is it okay that you feel them, that's part of what it is to be human, but it's actually a good thing to share that too.
LA: What I'm hearing from this conversation is that we often think that a particular job, or a particular life, or a particular apartment will give us that joy and fulfillment, but if we're shutting off parts of ourself to ourself, or if we're shutting off parts of ourself to God, we're not gonna feel ultimately fulfilled, it's gonna come out in other ways.
CM: Yes, I think you can... There's a very real and troubling trend happening in America right now, one of the wealthiest countries in the world where we are... They're calling them "Deaths of despair," are on the rise. Right? And so, a part of my research... So my research works at the intersection of human development, interactive media and storytelling, and cognitive science, neuroscience. Right? And so, part of the way we have traditionally looked at human development, my grandparents weren't wrong in saying that "We wanna make sure you're healthy, we wanna make sure that you're educated, and we wanna make sure that you have a good income, and we know if we can get you on a pathway that ensures your capacity to sustain all those things working in your life, you will live well." That's the National Index for the United Nations, by way of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen's HDI, Human Development Index, innovation, which he won an Economic Nobel Peace Prize for. And it looks at how long we live, how educated are you, and what is your income. But there's another part to there, when we look at America, we see that there are people who have committed suicide, who have committed crimes, who have high HDI, we can see that that is not the end-all, be-all, of what really defines our well-being..
So there's something else percolating and that something else is, how well are we living in honor of our true selves? And I think that the Bible and our faith offers us many pathways towards that. So getting to that, examining ourselves, and having altars in our hearts is what the new covenant talks about in Hebrews 10, where God says, "I will write my law on their hearts." Now like that we won't have the holies of holies, and we won't have just one priest going into the tabernacle to tell everybody everything that they need to know, that Jesus came so that we all could have access to the presence of God, and really commune with God, and figure out, "God, what is my purpose here on this earth? How would you have me give the goodness that you designed me with, the intention that you designed me with, over to my brothers and sisters, over to myself, and pleasing in your eyes, because I am being a good steward of the goodness that you intended when you designed me.”
LA: What exactly is it that God wrote on your heart? That's what you've been talking to us about this hour. What exactly is it? How do we find out? The work that will make us fulfilled by knowing exactly what it is that God wrote in our heart.
CM: Exactly. Yes.
LA: Clarissa, thank you so much for sharing your story with us today. It's really been great.
MR: Yeah, the story and also just the wisdom that you have taken from your story, and Scripture, and your studies, it's such an interesting combination that you bring, Clarissa, of just such a mature faith, and then there's this financial business part of you, and then there's this extraordinary artistic part of you. And then you added, toward the end, the part of you that's studying neuroscience, and so thank you for bringing all that together and sharing it with us, but in the context of your own story, and opening your life to us because I know that really will speak to our listeners a lot.
CM: Yeah, thank you guys for having me. It's a very unique story, but I do really think that it's a testament to how Romans 8:28 says that God can use all things to work for our good, those of us he's called and who love him. And so, I really hope that that is what people take away from this message, that whatever parts of yourself that you've been struggling with, that you've been trying to figure out how to make it work, that just seem uncanny, or they don't have a space of belonging, take it to God. Build an altar wherever you have to build it, in your home, in your car, in your church, in your journal, in your personal, internal prayers and thoughts. And through that process, God will reveal to you how to work better, love better, and live better in alignment with his will. I truly believe that and I think that my life is a testament to that truth.
LA: Thank you. Amen. Thank you Clarissa.
CM: Thank you guys.