Living through the Messy Middle
By Helen Goatley B.A. Dip.Ed Dip Theol
I was flicking through facebook this past week and a friend’s post caught my eye. It was his words “This is the longest period I have not be able to go to my family’s farm in the country..” that had me.
The rest of his post about the Pandemic was honest, raw, passionate, and human. He let his heart speak. It was real. Courageous. Messy. Rare.
Pandemic. Lockdowns. Re-openings. Tumultuous Change. Contradiction. Confusion. Tension. Conspiracy. Fear. Loss.
A complete and utter shaking of the world’s foundations. Not one sphere of life has been left untouched.
It’s hard and tiring. It’s ugly and it’s no joke.
It is Act 2. I propose this is where we all are right now. Our big questions are, “What happens next? What is God up to?”
I came across a conversation with Ed Catmull, co-Founder of Pixar and President of Walt Disney Animation Studios. He shared about the creative process. Creative processes follow a pattern most of us are familiar with. We call them Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3.
The camera zooms into Frodo and Bilbo in the sun drenched rolling green hills of the Shire. Jesus is baptized by John and the Spirit descends on him like a dove. 2019 closes and God whispers to many around the globe, “Behold I am doing a new thing and it begins now.” (Isaiah 43:19)
This is Act 1. We meet the main characters in the story and the adventure they are invited into. The scene is set and so is our understanding of the landscape of things, of how the world works and the rules as it were.
And then the defining incident transpires.. it all hits the fan, something hard happens. Frodo experiences the enticing lure of the ring. Jewish Leaders complain and plot Jesus’ death, while his own disciples are offended and leave. (John 6) A global pandemic breaks out.
As March 2020 lumbered into our lives and began breaking all the rules of how our world works, a virus let loose on humanity.
We were summoned into a journey. An adventure. A creative process. Act 1 began, ready or not.
As with all great stories, they unfold into the mystifying, often terrifying and gripping Act 2. Our hero is face down trying to make sense of what is happening, looking for every possible way to solve the problem that has just erupted. What is an easy, convenient way where they have as little skin in the game as possible. A way that doesn’t require risk and uncertainty.
But it is not until the lowest of the low that our hero realizes there is only one way through this. It’s going to require risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure, Vulnerability. And there is no opting out of it.
We have hit Act 2 and we are deep in it! We are so deep in it that pre-Covid normal is fast fading. A new ‘normal’ is asserting itself and is provoking and demanding a rumble. We are face down.
In all the teams Ed Catmul worked with at Pixar and Disney, Act 2 was ALWAYS the toughest, because as he said, “Act 2 is always a struggle with the characters and the narrative arch.”
Runners encounter this when they hit the wall and everything screams stop.
It’s that place in the tunnel where it’s just dark. Can’t see where we began and we have no idea of how long or far we have to go. There is no light at the end of the tunnel yet. There is only forward into a continuous unknown.
Pilots call it the “point of no return”. This aviation term was constructed by pilots to describe that point in the flight where there is too little fuel to turn around and return to the original airfield.
The novel, shiny glow of working from home in our track pants, spring cleaning our well overdue houses, singing out our windows over cities, thankfulness and kindness messages scattered over our streets and the online comradely we found, is dulling and waning.
Act 2 is replacing it with a dense fatiguing fog. The endless roller coaster of hope and disappointment, emerging freedom and persistent restriction. There is no shining anything anymore. It’s just relentless, uncertain and looming large are the characters and narratives.
Conspiracies and confabulations abound. What’s real? What’s not? The rules that once governed our lives and world don’t seem to apply anymore, and we don’t much like what’s replaced it.
We are up to our eye balls in Act 2 and it stopped being fun a long time ago. Ahead is more uncertainty and only more vulnerability. And there’s no way around it.
Jesus is dead. Hope is gone. Grief and shame are the haunting companions now to disillusioned disciples. There is no sunrise yet. It is just still and raging dark. The cross overshadows any forecast of resurrection.
It’s the messy middle. It is Act 2.
But Act 2 is where we begin to own the journey. Act 2 is where a new emerges about who we are, and where we are.
The honest often uncivilized narrative is finally given its place. The rumble of character ensues and the creative process of transformation materializes.
HOW do we move through and emerge from Act 2 with our families, with our faith communities, with our organisations and businesses?
There are some jewels that the tunnel of Act 2 holds which apply to every aspect of our lives and responsibilities.
– Know our stories right now are driven more by emotion and the need to self protect, more than anything else.
After the treacherously long journey across the wilds of Middle Earth to venture into Sauron’s country, Frodo hits rock bottom. The ring is heavy and the pathway steep, dark, evil feeling and dangerous. In exhaustion, he claims, “I don’t like anything here at all. Step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed.”1.
Act 2 is a rumble with emotion and some heavy weight emotions like grief, vulnerability, failure, inadequacy, forgiveness, blame and accountability, disappointment, expectations, fear, nostalgia, boundaries, trust, identity, shame, need and connection, integrity.
The most honest voice is always the voice of the heart.
It is here that some of our most brilliant opportunities for the new lay. Having the courage to reckon with our emotions, our self preservation and narratives is vital for the breakthrough that will set us up for success in Act 3.
Recent Sociological research has discovered that when human beings are in the middle of Act 2, conspiracies abound.2.
This research suggests that conspiracy is when we fill the empty gap between one piece of data and another, with fear.
Perhaps one of the most prominent emotions in this Pandemic moment is fear. We must be aware of its impact on our language, discernment and agenda’s.
Conspiracies seem to have touched just about every aspect of this moment and it has left the global population asking what is now THE question. “What is true?”
This is the thing about conspiratorial thinking, it is “not limited to the stupid, the ignorant or the crazy. It is a reflex of the story telling mind’s compulsive need for meaningful experience. In other words, conspiracy theories are used to explain why bad things happen.” 3.
Frodo’s assessment was that “all seem accursed.”
Conspiracy around Jesus’ body abounded within hours of the empty cross. Was it stolen by his disciples? What did the soldiers do?
What are the conspiracy’s surrounding us? Our stories especially those filled with fear can not be left unchecked.
NeuroScience research has clearly concluded that our brains are wired for story.4. Our brains when something happens, begins to sort the experience in story format. What has happened? Who are the characters in this and how do we keep safe and going? Who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy?
Story. We make up stories. All day long. We think in story. We do business in story. We relate in story.
But here’s the kicker! When something happens, the human brain works quickly and with the limited data it has in that moment to make sense of what is going on, it pieces what data it has into story and this causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin which make us feel better. We are chemically rewarded for story whether it’s factual or not.
In Act 2, contending with story is what it’s all about. And it is here that we are invited into an honest rumble with our stories and our emotions. We will not really move through Act 2 until we are honest with them. Ignore our stories and emotions, and we will remain anchored in Act 2.
What is God doing?
I submit He is growing us up in loving Him with all our soul, all our heart, all our mind. He wants us emotionally, spiritually and relationally intelligent to meet the needs and advance on the new landscape that is already coming forth, for the rules have changed in this new world.
As a result of this, He will develop our self awareness as individuals and as a people group of Christians. There’s a world of difference between self aware and self absorbed.
I believe He is also dealing with our trust in Him, in His love. As we rumble with trusting Him in the uncertainty that is in this Act 2 moment, He beckons us into new encounters with His Presence, His Holy Spirit. Trust invites us into vulnerability.
As C.S. Lewis in His book, The Four Loves said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
Our armor of self protection inhibits us from real connection both with God and with others. This laboring heavy armor shuts down trust, faith and creativity, essential for birthing the new. Rumble precedes breakthrough.
He wants to bring us back to His core value and the essence of who He is, love. Will we let love in and let it cast out fear? It has always been through whole hearted love that He has birthed the new.
What is His presence, His love worth to me, to you?
– In order to find what is true and own the adventure, curiosity must become our best friend especially as we seek the counsel of God.
Choosing curiosity is surrendering to uncertainty. It reminds us we are alive! It is an act of courage and a choice for connection. Curiosity breathes relationship and interrupts our prevailing stories.
A study published in 2014, showed that the brain’s chemistry changes when we become curious, helping us better to learn and retain information.5.
We have a ton of learning and unlearning to do ahead of us! The corner has been turned and we can not go back. This recalcitrant reality is the gift in Act 2.
The Kingdom of God is established through a childlike spirit. It is His truth that will set us free in the waste lands of this Pandemic moment.
When Jesus met Peter on the beach that early morning in Galilee, he lead Peter through Peter’s Act 2 with curiosity. “Peter do you love me?” The issue for Jesus was connection with Peter.
For Jesus, Peter’s heart story mattered over his behaviour. Value the connection and the heart story, and you have the behaviour.
One of the significant aspects around Act 2 moments be it with individuals, organisations or even nations, is our stories around our sense of worthiness.6. Our lovability, our divinity and our creativity, takes a hammering in Act 2. The most dangerous conspiracy theory of all is around our stories of being unlovable.
As the State of Victoria in Australia went into it’s devastating second wave within weeks of ending the first wave, terms like “Sicktoria” and “Virustoria” were thrown around. The Shame game began to question the sense of worth and lovability of the 7 time Winner of the World’s most livable city. It’s residents slimed by the shame storm and fear mantra, piled into their cars to flee the city.
In the absence of love and connection, there is always suffering, and there is so much of that as the world rumbles with social isolation and yet trying to put community back together in the midst of pandemic.
The tunnel of Act 2 throws up things about us, about God that take a lot of honesty to rumble with. Curiosity is unruly and yet a prized possession in the heart of God. We need to nurture our capacity to wonder!
The stunning thing that research continues to present about Act 2, is the importance of our faith narratives being protected and caring for the stories we tell ourselves about our creativity and abilitiy.
Why? Because it is our faith narratives and our creative ability that will be called upon most to navigate the unknown way ahead and rise into the new. Jesus knew that in the rumble after the Cross and Ascension, remembering Him would be vital to making meaning of the times we would live in.
More than ever we have to work hard relationally right now in this Pandemic. Connection to Jesus, connection to one another and curiosity with our heart stories is how we find our way another step forward in the dark place of a tunnel that wrangles with our worthiness.
What is God doing?
He is toughing our love, our love for him, each other and ourselves. He is taking us further into the deep that calls to deep, (Psalm 42:7) to a love that is resilient, purified from our weighty self protecting armors of punishment, performance, perfection.
Love’s destination is always to cast out fear and to immunize us against hate. Both of which have dominated too much of our worldview and our relationships.
Jesus left us with one commandment, the vulnerability of loving Him and one another. This is a higher call than the Covenant of Law. Law says here’s the list, do it and your lovability and worth is measurable. It’s tangible. It hinges on your performance and perfection.
The Covenant of Love, is relational. It’s not so neat and easy. It’s messy. It’s slow. It’s hard. It’s requires grace and trust! It only works when connection is our core value and we give up our right to punishment and self preservation.
“Peter, do you love me?” There is nothing more vulnerable, more courageous, more powerful. This moment invites us to love again.
When Ed Catmul reflected on the journey with Act 2, he concluded, “no amount of experience or success gives us a free pass from this. Act 2 is daunting and so is the level of self doubt that comes with it. We simply can’t skip the middle!”
So here we are in the middle. What will we do with Act 2?
Sam’s words to Frodo echo down the tunnel ahead of us.
“It’s like in the great stores Mr Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad has happened?
But in the end its only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding onto something. That there’s some good in the world, Mr Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
Act 2 will become the birth canal of the new thing that God whispered to many back in our pre- Covid world. It will be crafted from our stories, our honest rumblings and our stubborn commitment to connection with God and to each other in the grungy, messy middle.
Will we own this Act?
Surely, but surely, Sunday morning will come and with it resurrection. Don’t you see its rays even now?
1. Lord of the Rings, Tolkin, J.R.R. (2012) London, HarperCollins.
2. Rising Strong: Brown, B (2015) Rising Strong; How the ability to reset transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. New York: Random House
3. The Storytelling Animal: Gottschall, J. (2012) The Storytelling animal: How stories make us human. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
4. Burton, R.A. 2008, On Being certain: Believing you are right even when you’re not. St Martins Press, New York.
5. Gruber, M.J., Gelman, B.D. and Ranganath, C. (2014) Oct 22, 2014, issue of the journal Neuron.
6. Rising Strong: Brown, B (2015) Rising Strong; How the ability to reset transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. New York: Random House