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Recently updated with an expanded study guide, Strong Women, Soft Hearts has quickly become an important study for women of all ages. Through inspiring real-life testimonies, Paula Rinehart writes as both a kindred spirit and a compassionate counselor to women feeling robbed of their passions and trapped by life's disappointing realities. Women who long to be released from the burden of hard choices and perpetually empty souls will be empowered to rediscover dreams long lost and refocus energy misguided. Strong ...
Recently updated with an expanded study guide, Strong Women, Soft Hearts has quickly become an important study for women of all ages. Through inspiring real-life testimonies, Paula Rinehart writes as both a kindred spirit and a compassionate counselor to women feeling robbed of their passions and trapped by life's disappointing realities. Women who long to be released from the burden of hard choices and perpetually empty souls will be empowered to rediscover dreams long lost and refocus energy misguided. Strong Women, Soft Hearts cries out for women to embrace passion and approach life as something to be lived, not merely survived.
AWAKENING: God Calls Our Hearts
In the end, it doesn't matter how well we have performed or what we have accomplished—a life without heart is not worth living. For out of this wellspring of our soul flow all true caring and all meaningful work, all real worship and all sacrifice.
Brent Curtis and John Eldredge
For all of a sudden when I saw those lights, I said to myself, Ivy, this is your life, this is your real life, and you are living it. Your life is not going to start later. This is it, it is now. It's funny how a person can be so busy that they forget this is it. This is my life.
This book began to write itself a few years back, when I first washed up on the shores of midlife and wondered how I could feel so empty. People often complain of such things during that season of life—like someone drilled a hole through their souls. While everything looks the same on the outside, they feel hollow and restless, bored in ways that make no sense. For me, it was that very emptiness—the sense that something important was missing—that propelled me down this path. And for that I am incredibly grateful.
The emptiness pushed me in the direction of my heart. It moved me out of my head, where I kept trying to figure everything out, organizing it in piles neater than my walk-in closet. It forced me to leave all the busy rush of children's soccer games and places I must appear, and retreat for little bits of time to a still and quiet place where I could hear my soul again. The emptiness has a noise all its own, I discovered, a kind of piper's tune that begs you to pay attention. Pay attention. This can take you somewhere good.
It's strange the way we meander through life, thinking we are moving forward, only to discover that we have left our hearts behind.
More than a hundred years ago now, Frank Baum wrote a story for children we still read—the simple tale of a girl in Kansas caught up in a cyclone that carried her to a strange land called Oz. There Dorothy met up with a few other lost souls—a scarecrow who wanted someone to give him brains, a tin man in search of a heart, and a cowardly lion who lacked courage. Together they set off to see the wizard. Along the way they discovered what they felt they had so badly needed.
Frank Baum apparently never expected his story to be so popular. Adults have loved The Wizard of Oz nearly as much as children have through the years. And though Baum wrote other good books in his lifetime, he was forever pigeonholed as the man who created Dorothy and the cast of characters who inhabited the Emerald City. He never got too far from being the creator of Oz.
The reason I mention this story is that I think it tells a small but important truth about our lives. It gives a piece of all our stories. Dorothy and her friends captivate us, generation after generation, because we, too, are on a journey. Somehow we sense that becoming who we really are means that we also must discover our mind and heart and courage, or something crucial will be missing. The very struggles we would just as soon skip past become the ticket to gaining what we lack, as though God knew just the grist we needed to become what he had in mind.
Listening to the stories—the lives—of women, as a counselor and a writer, makes me very conscious of how similar our journeys are. Each of us wants to become what I call a strong woman with a soft heart—a woman in touch with God and alive to all the possibilities that walking with him can bring. It's just that sometimes we get mired in the very clay he dug us out of, tangled in the weeds of our own wanderings.
Occasionally I meet a woman and listen to her story, and I find that I am the one who is changed from the encounter. A few years ago I spoke with a woman who had survived an operation no one thought she possibly could. Other than an occasional checkup, there were no long-term effects on her health. In fact, the doctors said she could do whatever she wanted to do. The problem was that five years had passed and she still wasn't doing much of anything. She had drawn a small circle around herself and she lived inside it—taking walks with an elderly mother, having lunch occasionally with friends, cleaning her house. It was squeaky clean by this point. The thought of actively engaging in life caused so much anxiety that she stayed put, bound up with fear.
I asked the obvious question. What was she afraid of?
"I'm afraid I'm going to die," she said. Calamity had struck once and she had survived. Calamity could strike again.
I kept thinking that she would see she had been graced with another chance at life. That she would want to make the most of the time God had given her. But weeks and weeks and weeks passed and nothing budged. "You are going to die," I finally said one day in a moment of quiet desperation. "The question it seems is, Are you going to live?"
That question has returned to me a hundred times since I first asked it. Are you going to live? And by that I mean, will you really grab hold of life in whatever shape God has given it and live as though you didn't go around twice? As simple as that sounds, I find the temptation to shut down on the inside and settle for the crumbs under the table is one that every woman faces. It's a temptation I face. We can so easily sleepwalk through our days—out of touch, disconnected, half-alive. We can die before our time, really. On the inside, we can die long before there are any visible signs.
The underlying premise of this book is that we must have our hearts intact in order to make the journey of life well. We must have access to the inside stuff—the longings and desires and dreams and vulnerabilities that make us who we are. God placed those in us. He means for us to live from the heart. It's the place where we first hear his voice and respond. It's the key to so much—to trust and the willingness to forgive; to laughter, wisdom, and sacrifice; to being able to love others in a real way.
Life is not a journey you want to make on autopilot.
FOLLOWING THE TRAIL
Suppose someone pulled you aside and said, "Tell me about the moments in your life when you felt really alive." What would you say?
Would you recount for them the experience of holding your first child in your arms?
Would you describe, perhaps, what it feels like to sit for an hour and look out over a mountain ridge at the glory of fall colors?
How about the memory of a laugh-till-you-cry story with a good friend?
Or the moment when the same old argument you've had for years with your husband suddenly broke through to a new level of understanding?
Would you talk about a time when you could sense the presence of God in some very real way?
Simple moments like these, which we string together like pearls on a necklace, are more important than we realize. They are sure clues to the capacity of our hearts to engage in life in an open and unguarded way. But if we have been burned at some point, seared by the pain of life, we tend to close off the chambers of our souls until our hearts are frozen in place, hard and impenetrable. The effort to shield ourselves from pain also blocks our awareness of the good stuff. And then, unfortunately, we could be standing knee-deep in a river of water and feel that we are dying of thirst. Our hearts are unable to receive.
Sometimes I find that a woman's clearest memories of feeling really alive come from childhood. One friend recounted for me how, when she was six years old, she would fill her mother's pickle jar full of water and sit for hours in the Oklahoma sun, shaping red clay into her first pottery. It was something close to bliss, she said. All the wonder and innocence of childhood was still in place. She didn't have to have life packaged with a bow. She could trust that good would come to her in the right time. She was simply there on the hillside, creating something she thought was beautiful.
All of us have memories like this, tucked away in the attic of our minds. Times when we led the parade. When our dreams were still intact. When we could still be amazed by a butterfly's wings. And we think, somehow, that growing up means letting that go. When we start to get beaten up by life a bit, those original hopes and longings are often knocked from our arms. So we pick them up and pack them away, out of sight, where it doesn't hurt too much to remember. And we go on.
It's terribly important, though, that we don't just go on. Please don't just go on. Instead, reclaim your heart, then go back and ask God for the essence of your original hopes and dreams, the ones he means for you to carry into the future. They are necessary to make the journey well.
Of course, childhood is not the only place where we are free to listen to our hearts. My heart was engaged in a way close to the way it was in childhood when I was first introduced to Christ. That's a good way to describe the experience because it is like meeting someone for the first time. Then you discover that he has always known you, better even than you know yourself. Christ touched the tender, hopeful, childlike place in my heart. Or to put it another way, he blew the lock off the door and I sensed a powerful freedom in him I had not known before.
It is a bit of a mystery how we lose the early glow we have when the wonder of the gospel first captures us. How we slowly drift from the domain of the heart to a focus on efficiency and performance—as though this whole thing was mostly about doing and duty. The passion is replaced with just showing up. And before long, we have struck a kind of macabre contract with God, and we hope that if we just keep the rules, the road will rise to meet us. And we will be spared the pain. The distance grows between our heads and our hearts and we lose our felt connection with the presence of God.
If I am honest, I admit that I let that distance build through the years. My heart was a mysterious bundle of needs and fears and longings I could not name. It seemed to be dangerous territory I should avoid. I remembered well Jeremiah's warning that the heart was deceitful and sick—only later did I realize that he was speaking of the unredeemed heart and how desperate and crazy the search for life becomes when it's not a search for life in God. I used words like Jeremiah's as an excuse to steer clear of much that looked at the inner life. But the truth is, I was scared. I simply closed the door on it all. Exploring how I felt or what I longed for was a venture into the great unknown. It took the emptiness to get my attention. In the emptiness I could hear God knocking—and what he was knocking on, I slowly realized, was the door to my heart.
As I talk with women, it is apparent that my experience is not unique. We often avoid, as long as we can, any serious grappling with the life of the heart. We waltz past our losses, bury our feelings, and try to pretend. Two barriers loom large. We fear our hearts as dangerous havens of something that could undo us. Or we perceive the domain of the heart as one of weakness, the source of an emotional softness that would allow us to be taken advantage of by others. Actually, it is neither.
THE VULNERABILITY OF WOMEN
At the center of being a woman lies a paradox that can help us understand why we often find living from the heart a precarious venture.
On one hand, we possess a rather wonderful capacity for relationship. Our language is that of the heart—experiencing life deeply, feeling connected to those we love, enjoying the ambiance. This capacity enriches our lives immeasurably. That's the good news.
The bad news is that this very capacity also makes us more vulnerable to loss. You can't make a relationship happen like you would make up your mind to start a business or achieve some tangible goal. Relationships, and really most matters of the heart, are inherently more unmanageable. Relationships defy our attempts at control. The people we love don't always love us back. Friends move away. Lovers change. And the truth is that if we live long enough, we face the potential loss of everyone who matters to us.
So the very capacity that provides our ticket to the richest moments of life—to the most meaningful connection with God and with those we love—also riddles our lives with risk. Our greater capacity for relationship opens up a larger possibility for experiencing pain. The secret of our hearts is that we can be touched. We can be moved deeply. Simply put, we can be gotten to.
On a deep level, then, we face a choice about what we will do with that pain. Many a woman opts for letting go of her passion for life and relationship so that she has less to risk. She builds walls instead of bridges. She lets her heart shrink on the inside and the shell grows tough. The alternative, of course, is to let the pain and loss associated with the world of relationships become a tool in the hand of God, to actually shape a new sort of strength and vitality so that we have even more to give.
Vulnerability is key if we are to understand how we so easily move through life, leaving our hearts behind. It happens in ways you might recognize.
We Live Other People's Stories, Not Our Own
When I first met Anna, I wondered at how much she had going for her—and how depressed she was. In her late twenties, with an enviable job and many friends, Anna had been stopped in her tracks by a general malaise that would not lift. She found herself, for the first time, unmotivated and at loose ends with life.
Her story tumbled out easily. The steps of Anna's life had been carefully scripted, and in many ways it was a good plan. She would attend certain schools, date a certain kind of guy, and eventually become an interior designer like her mother. Anna had followed the yellow brick road well. She and her mother now owned a small, thriving company. Family pressure, though, had been just strong enough to keep Anna from asking the necessary open-ended questions about her life. So I asked one for her, the simplest one. What did she want to do with her life?
"I haven't really let myself ask that question," she admitted. And then in a quieter voice she added, "Sometimes I wonder if I have been living my mother's life—not mine."
This is such a common refrain for women. We tend to pick up on others' expectations—not just our mothers'—and shape ourselves to fit a preordained mold. We aim to please. And in the process, it takes us longer to uncover our own opinions or make choices for which we take responsibility. We get the story of our lives lost in someone else's.
The way this happens is a bit like an old story told about a mother and daughter discussing the daughter's upcoming wedding plans. Her mother wanted classical music, and she thought pink roses made the loveliest flowers for such an occasion. And she knew just the photographer. The cake should have fresh flowers, and on and on. "Wait a minute," the daughter finally said. "This is my wedding. You already had your wedding."
Her mother thought for a minute and then replied, "No ... actually I had my mother's wedding."
It's kind of a funny story, until you realize that we can live our whole lives like this. When we do, we miss the necessary step of sitting before the Lord and listening with our hearts for some sense of direction meant personally for us. I will never forget the response of a woman who, after a history of painful miscarriages, volunteered a day a week to help other women who had experienced infertility or the loss of children. She now had two small children of her own, so I asked how she managed to give her time in this busy season of life.
She looked at me as if I were clueless. "You don't understand," she replied. "When I help women through this painful experience I feel like I am doing something I was born for."
Excerpted from Strong Women Soft Hearts by Paula Rinehart. Copyright © 2001 Paula Rinehart. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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Posted December 22, 2002
Sometimes a book connects perfectly with where you are, and puts words to questions that you don't know how to ask God and/or yourself. SWSH is just such a book -- beautifully written, yet thought-provoking. I greatly appreciated the author's perspective on how women view taking risks and how we can more honestly live our passions. Each chapter ends with 6-10 questions that can be used for personal self-examination or as a guide for group study. Rinehart uses quotes and vignettes well, keeping the reader's attention without getting preachy. A book you'll re-read....
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Posted July 7, 2011
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