disciple

I was sitting in Greenwich Village yesterday afternoon, laughing with one of my best friends from college, Tiffany**. Freshman year, I was on my way to a Halloween party and bumped into her and a mutual friend, who happened to be going to the same place, so naturally we joined together. Tiffany and I instantly clicked and my shallow teenage self was pleased to have another pretty, popular friend to party with. And indeed we partied..and had many blackout nights. And shared many hook-up stories. And had many gossipy conversations at our kitchen table about everyone in the 200 person social bubble at our nerd school. We were those girls. And yet two weeks ago, we sat around the table of my C3 dinner party, with other people from my church, discussing faith and how to surrender our lives to God’s will. An evolution to say the least.

Nothing has more influence in your life than the people in it. C3 has started a new series on discipleship, or how we teach and learn from each other, and it has me reflecting on the changes in how I see friendship. I used to take a “the more the merrier” approach and vehemently denied the idea that you can’t have a dozen best friends. As a serial friend group bouncer, I had an overwhelming number of people with values and lifestyles on every part of the spectrum continuously imprinting and overwriting on my heart. It brought confusion about what I was looking for in people because it became increasingly more difficult to trace which influences came from who, especially because most of these relationships were fleeting. All my good friends who’ve lasted the test of time have the same thing in common: they have discipled me into my best self.

I’m not saying be exclusive. Be friendly to everyone, have acquaintances galore. However, we tend to have a lot of “friendship” out of convenience, when friendship should be out of communion, the idea that we are becoming one with the people around us, internalizing their thoughts and actions. A true friend is not someone to just pass the time with; he or she subconsciously sets the standard for your life by bringing you up or down to theirs. After all the work I’ve done in changing myself,  I’m not interested in anyone undo-ing my progress. I want people who: encourage me to go the extra mile, have uplifting and positive energy, call me out when I’m living below my potential, talk about real things (not the he-said she-said of what’s happening in everyone else’s life), support me through thick and thin, inspire me in how they deal with life’s challenges with grace and poise. If your friends don’t look like this, ask yourself - why are they your friends?

Some people may work for right now. Then 5 years pass, you live in different cities, the context of your closeness changes. Even if they’re nice people with nothing blatantly flawed, the extra push they add to your life is what separates the here-and-now from the now-and-forever friends. If you’re not already discipling each other for the better, either you will outgrow them or they will outgrow you. That’s what I love about Tiffany and I. When we were moved into our apartment years ago, I had a sign hanging on the way saying “Lex & Tiff for life.” Yet truth be told, there was a time when I questioned it. After we stopped living together sophomore year and thrill of our reckless underclassman lifestyle faded, there was more space and less keeping us together. Last spring, we hung out after a while and I realized in that distance, we had both been growing independently and were now secure, hard-working women letting go of everything toxic in our lives. We were so inspired by how much the other person had grown- I mean, seriously we used to be hot messes- it forged the way for us to be close again and resurrected our friendship from something skin deep to a constant source of motivation. Every time we talk, she’s remarking how much she’s learned from me, while I’m thinking “What? I’m learning so much from you!” Your life naturally moves in an upward direction when the people in your life look like that, not ten brunch-and-done girlfriends. It pushes you to look at your sphere of influence and replicate the example in someone else’s life. If you’re feeling stagnant or conflicted in your growth, take time this week to think over who’s discipling you and who you could be discipling //

**name changed for anonymity

rewire

Last spring, I was asked a seemingly simple question: “What do you think about?”

I raised an eyebrow. “You mean like, in general, or ..?” I didn’t understand what kind of answer this person was expecting to such a broad inquiry. She continued, “As you go about your day, what kinds of thoughts enter your head? Where does the narrative of your mind go?” I walked through what I had done that day, and recalled whatever accompanying thoughts popped to the surface. As my words hit the air, she looked at me with this strange mix of love and pity. “Don’t you see? Your thoughts are ruling and ruining you.” Our conversation was about how I felt spiritually and physically exhausted all the time without knowing why. She revealed to me:  if I wasn’t thinking about everything I had to do, or chastising myself for procrastination, I was appraising what I just did- what there too much of X? Not enough of Y? Should I have done Z instead? If I had interacted with someone- was I open enough? What kind of vibe was I giving off? Do they actually like me? When I looked in the mirror- am I gaining weight? Are my eyebags getting worse? When I looked at my boyfriend- are we getting stronger? Will we last to the summer, to the winter, to next spring? Along with the omnipresent questions- am I working hard enough? Where is my life going? What am I eating for dinner? Somehow I was oblivious to the fact that everywhere I looked, quite literally, there was a queue of questions and worries waiting to have their turn at the center of my attention. 

Psych literature hasn’t reached a consensus on how many thoughts per day we have- the guesses range from 25,000 to 80,000- but they’re on the same page about this: 70% or more of them tend to be negative, and 95% or more tend to be repetitive, meaning exactly the same things you told yourself yesterday. Depression, anxiety, and all their cousins are all very much real. They have an equally real solution, namely, the reframing of your thoughts. But it’s just not that easy. I know. But I tried that before and it didn’t work. Yes, I’m sure.But I’m just wired this way. A fallacy. The brains defining feature is plasticity, or the ability to rewire itself, after it encounters new thoughts, behaviors, and experiences enough times. 

It’s common knowledge that our thinking plays a part in our wellbeing, but I don’t think we always grasp how critical that fact is and the urgency it deserves. Either you control your headspace or it controls you. You wouldn’t leave a toddler unchecked to do whatever he or she wants- you’d have food, dirty diapers, piles of toys, crayon markings all over your home. So why leave your mind alone to its devices to leave a mess in your mental home with criticisms, worries, and other negative thoughts? Your subconscious ego isn’t too far off from a toddler and it needs the same refining and discipline. 

You can’t magically force every thought to be positive- negative ones will come- but you can declare to the kind of space you want for yourself and choose what to accept. You have the power to say no as soon as the wrong thoughts start creeping up. And you’ve seen what happens a parent tells their 3 year old no. There’s resistance. Nonetheless, the parent who puts their foot down, amid the persistent temper tantrums, knows that they’re establishing a standard for what is and isn’t okay. Eventually the child will learn to align with those standards and moreover, respect the parent’s authority. Are you setting a standard for your mind to align to? Are you showing your mind your authority? 

So often we place our feelings and thoughts on a pedestal, and that’s why they come back, stronger and stronger. Sometimes you have to say ‘Wait no, I’m the master, not the slave’ and reestablish your position over anything that doesn’t serve you. Seriously, talk back to yourself. Interrupt the ‘I’m so stupid, why did I do that? I always do things wrong and I don’t know how i’m going to-‘ mid thought and say ‘Sorry no, my mind is sacred and this can’t continue’. Keep doing it every time that narrative tries to mutiny you. When we become intentional about making healthy headspace, those thoughts and worries learn to come back less and less because they don’t get the same attention they used to. And with all that leftover space in your mind, you can think about real things, like your accomplishments , what's actually going right in your life, and all your goals. Rewire until that becomes the norm.

No Complaints

Two Christmas' ago, I was in a car with my sister and cousins riding to dinner. I was fairly zoned out of the conversation, but the cousin driving started telling a story that stole my attention and has been imprinted on my heart ever since. She informed us that the day before, she had gifts sitting in the trunk. Someone bashed her windows, broke into her car, and stole almost everything inside. This was Christmas Eve, and I can only imagine the struggle of having to rebuy gifts, find time to repair the damage, file a police report, stay composed for her three little boys, etc. It would've certainly taken me out the Christmas spirit. But she told this story with such levity, spirit unbothered, as if she were talking about something ridiculous on TV  that happened to someone else, not her and the very car we were sitting in. She joked that the robbers were so petty, they even took the pack of gum she kept in the front pocket- "Like damn, you couldn't even spare my gum?!" We all burst into laughter and in awe, I learned this golden lesson: there is never a reason to complain because you're only the victim if you choose to be. 

How many people would've responded that way? Versus the far greater amount of people who would've let irritation bog them down, entering into a 'I'm having the worst day' frenzy and having negativity pervade. John 10:10 hits on this so well: "The enemy comes only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance." It also goes hand in hand with one of my favorite Shakespeare quotes, "The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief". Those robbers had the intention of ruining my cousin's day, but here she was with was the upper hand, enjoying her Christmas with family just the same, if not more. That moment they thought would reap grief instead produced a moment of bonding and amusement for us, and an opportunity for me to write this two years later. There's a strength that comes from realizing the world can give you whatever it wants, but ultimately you will decide how you'll use it. When you access that power to use all things for good, you can laugh in the face of anything. 

Let's zoom out. This speaks well on paper, but when your boss irks your nerves, or the train is 20 minutes late, or that person you expected to come through lets you down, this logic does not come naturally. I've heard John 10:10 dozens of time, but this week, second half has been jumping out at me: we were intended to 1) enjoy life and 2) have an abundance mentality. That's where the enemy - or if you're not spiritual, the world in general- gets you. Do you realize that in order to complain, you need to have something to complain about? And if you have something, you can focus on what's there, not what you lack? And that you can still enjoy life in spite of that circumstance? I see complaint as blindness to blessing. You hate that your job is so demanding sometimes ? Well, you have a job, you have money going into your bank account, you have an opportunity to grow & establish yourself. You hate that you don't have your dream body? You have your current body, which has worked everyday to sustained you thus far- and if you feel so pressed, you have a motivation to renew your diet and exercise habits. I'm sure my cousin wasn't thrilled about what happened, but she had a car, she had a family for the gifts, she had the money to pay for what needed to be done, she had a holiday to celebrate. 

There are objectively terrible things that happen, say cancer, that warrant being upset. Yet when someone you love is in jeopardy, how much more do you see and appreciate the loved ones you still have? All the little things that seemed complain-worthy before pale in comparison to the value of that one person's life. What if you valued your own life at that same level and could pale all your minor inconveniences in the same way? How much time could you save taking that perspective voluntarily than waiting to be put in the dire life or death situation that forces it? Cancer is when cells abnormally divide and start to destroy body tissue. Couldn't complaint be likened to cancer- overly breaking apart a situation or 'lack' in your head until it becomes a tumor, and your negative thoughts attack your sense of gratefulness and satisfaction?

My mom and I have never meshed. I don't have the freedom to move out right now, so I'm stuck at home.  I don't know when I'll leave, but I know if I spend everyday hating it, that's will be too many days of my life wasted. With that same energy, I figured I could be proactive in finding ways to make it bearable. To minimize arguments, I started writing down the things she got upset over and common themes were revealed to me, making it easier to bridge the gap. I learned to hold back my tongue and pride. Sometimes I have to go the extra mile, doing things I hate to do, because seeking what's best for the household means a better environment for everyone.  So what I spent years complaining about and being anxious to get away from was actually growing empathy, patience, humility, love, and forgiveness I didn't know I had in me. A space of lack is a space to sow seeds. Abundance mentality. 

Complaining is easy, it feels good, but it can do nothing to serve you. It's false sense of release that helps you ignore the fact that you gave this external condition more leverage over your joy than the inward condition of your heart. It's a defense mechanism for when you feel powerless. Each time a complaint forms on your lips, you're reinforcing your weakness to yourself. The enemy/world wants you to stay fixated on 'I don't have what I want', but you have the power to declare, 'I have what I have and that's enough.' Because you do. The power to laugh. A mind and spirit that can get around/through/over that thing. The opportunity to maximize and multiply what's there. Believe that you have more than enough to enjoy life and you will.

a(lex)is

When I was in second grade, I changed my name every week. According to the tops of my school worksheets, I was ‘Tiffany’ one day, ‘Bridget’ another, ‘Amanda’ the next. One day, my teacher was handing back quizzes and with a face I'll never forget said, ‘Who is..Princess Aurora?’I -inspired by watching Sleeping Beauty for the first time that week- awkwardly slid my hand in the air with chagrin. You can say that at the ripe age of seven, I began wrestling with an identity crisis. In high school, I told my mom I’d only answer to Dulcinea, ‘my new middle name’. For 6 years, almost all my friends called me ‘Willis.’ I was ‘Alesi’ to my neighbors who barely spoke english, ‘Alexa’ to my young niece who could pronounce her letters just fine, but apparently likes that better. There was something about Alexis that never stuck. I've wanted so badly to be someone else in a near delusional way. In my youth, it stemmed from a place of unfamiliarity- Alexis was uncommon, and I wanted to be branded with a connotation, be it girly, exotic, bold, whatever.
As I got older, it was from a place of shame. In a sociology class, I learned of something called the ‘grand narrative’. If everyone you've ever interacted with was asked “so what is [insert your name] like?”, the collection of their responses forms your grand narrative, a figurative cloud of your identity based on the world’s experience of you. Imagining my grand narrative haunted me. If you asked my family, they’d say I was sullen, distant, contentious because I couldn’t turn depressed Alexis off around them. My friends would say I was caring and bubbly and zany, but in my worser moments throughout college, some could say I was erratic, burdening, straight up mean at times. If you were looking hard enough, you’d see I was aloof, irresponsible, untrustworthy, ungrounded. I was popular, but not the leader of the conversation-just following along, here for the photo opps, not that memorable. I hooked up with people and drank beyond the point of fun. I don’t know how much of this people actually saw because I had the ability to smile big and hide well. But I saw it everyday. Each time I almost got fired from my job, or barely passed a test from a class on the pre-med track I hated, or received a follow up email for something I’d been avoiding. I saw ’Alexis Willis’ and I saw shortcoming and unworthiness.
When I surrendered to my faith beginning of 2017, it raised an interesting tension in me. There was my worldly grand narrative and then there was God, saying my slate was clean and I was freed from my failures. As I grew closer to Him, my character conformed, breaking those negative behaviors one by one. One day last spring, I woke up and realize I wasn’t depressed anymore. And that I didn’t know who I was outside of my depression. I started modeling in New York and it dawned upon me: when I walk into a room, people only know who I show up as, which could theoretically be whoever I wanted. Simultaneously building a new career and a new personhood, I created my new Instagram ‘butcallmelex’. In reality, maybe 3 people actually called me Lex, but the thought popped up- What if I start introducing myself as Lex?
It was unnatural at first. I’d show up to a shoot or church or to hang out someone new and have to actively remind myself, ‘You’re Lex now’. And yet it was easy enough. ln hindsight, I see my logic: I couldn’t undo the damage to my grand narrative as Alexis, but I could create and control a pure narrative as Lex. Lex was free in heart and spirit. She showed up on time and had her priorities straight. She put 100% into things and killed it. She didn’t settle, she wasn’t living in fear. People liked Lex and were inspired by her in a way Alexis had never seen. It spoke to the power of affirmation- I told myself I was this kind of person, other people were seeing as me this kind of person, so I eventually became this kind of person. 
After all these months, it’s less of a Bruce Wayne stepping into his Batman suit process. I don’t see it as a separate entity but when someone calls me Lex, I still have a ‘oh right, that’s me’ moment for .2 seconds. I still call myself Alexis in my head and don’t tell people who know me as Alexis to change. It’s a healthy reminder that as much as I’d like to pretend the old me never existed, she does creep up, in times of fear or me living under my potential. I see it as ‘a(lex)is’ : this is who I am at the core, when I push all the extra bs surrounding my heart out the way. That symbolism conveniently works out with the spelling of my name, but i think it applies to everyone. Too many people are not living as their ideal selves- outside the parentheses, so to speak- because their grand narratives are in the way. Though it was a new city, job, and commitment to religion that prompted me to change my life, such drastic changes aren't necessary to experience the same process. Make peace with your current grand narrative, understand what negative parts of your life come from it, and decide to begin afresh. It's truly that simple. 
-lex