Seven life-changing lessons I learned in 2009

December 28, 2009 | 25 comments

As the new year approaches, I’ve enjoyed looking back on 2009 and thinking about the big things I’ve learned this year:

1. If you want to have a good prayer life, it’s important to take care of yourself physically and mentally

I first wrote about this in late 2008, when I recounted the story of going to meet with my spiritual director to tell her about my slack prayer habits. To my surprise, rather than talking about prayer she wanted to focus on a passing comment I’d made earlier in the conversation when I said I was tired all the time. “Is there anything you can do about that?” she wondered. “Because if you’re really tired it’s going to make it much harder to pray.”

That was a major ah-hah! moment. Based on that realization, I began to take a hard look at the ways in which I wasn’t taking care of myself, which eventually led to me realizing that I had issues with food addiction, that all my previous weight-loss-based attempts at changing my diet boiled down to exchanging one vice (gluttony) for another (vanity), and that what I really needed to learn was detachment.

Needless to say, feeling better by taking care of myself physically wasn’t a magic bullet that made my prayer life perfect, but it did break down a lot of barriers I’d intentionally put up that made focusing on God more difficult than it needed to be, and my prayer life benefited greatly from the results.

2. Breaking out of an “If only!” mindset starts with re-thinking gratitude

As I wrote in my post about escaping from “If Only!” island, I’ve always felt like I was stuck in this vicious cycle of feeling certain that if I just had this widget or that different circumstance that then I’d be fully content…and then I get those things and am still not happy.

As I talked about in that post, it was a huge lesson when I realized that I needed to re-think gratitude in order to break out of that mentality. When thinking about what I was grateful for, I basically got out the “How Comfortable is Jen Today?” meter and started thinking about the material things that brought me pleasure…but, while the meter was out, it left me awfully tempted to dwell on all the things that were inconveniencing me as well. By learning to change my focus to spend more time thinking about God’s love in my life and less time thinking about stuff and comfort, I’ve been able to make huge strides in feeling content with my life as-is, and am slowly breaking away from “If Only!” Island.

I should add, since I saw from comments and emails that I don’t think I communicated this well the first time, that I am not at all suggesting that it’s bad to be grateful for material things. (I know Ann Voskamp’s “Thousand Gifts” posts are constant source of inspiration for me, and she frequently lists life’s simple pleasures.) My lesson was not that I should never feel grateful for soft sheets or air conditioner in the summer, but that I should always remember that those things are not the true source of my happiness.

3. When you trust God, it actually like works out and stuff

Regular readers know that trusting God on a moment-to-moment basis is not something I’m good at. At all. Nevertheless, I am always trying to control less and trust more, even if it’s usually a process of taking two steps forward, one step back. Ever since reading 10 Prayers God Always Says Yes To, where author Anthony DeStefano emphasizes that God can bring good out of any situation, I’d been inspired to focus on trusting God fully at each moment, worrying less about whether any given situation was due to God’s direct will or my stupidity or randomness or whatever, and just turning to him and saying, “I trust that you’ll use this situation for good. What do I do next?”

There have been countless examples of seeing the wisdom of this lesson in action, but the biggest one was with the book and the unplanned pregnancy:

In the summer of 2008 I signed a contract with an agent to write a book about my conversion from atheism to Christianity. A book deal! What a dream come true! With three kids under four it was hard to find time to write, so I began a rigorous schedule of getting up two hours before the kids each morning to have writing time. Then I was floored to find out that I was unexpectedly pregnant with another high-risk pregnancy. In addition to concerns about having four children under age five, pregnancy fatigue meant that I could no longer get up early, and my writing schedule was demolished. In fact, it was clear that it was now going to take more than double the time I’d originally set to finish it.

For a long time I felt upset, worrying that my demolished timeline and the chaos of so many kids would mean that my dream would turn to smoke, but I grudgingly decided to trust that God would bring good out of it. Of course when the baby got here I got a clue and realized what a tremendous blessing she was and how privileged we all were to have her as part of the family, but even in terms of the book, I began to see how the whole situation worked for good.

The first draft was not that good, but I hadn’t seen that at the time. Had I had the energy to power through it as I’d originally intended, I am certain that I would have polished up that first draft and sent it off to my agent in my zeal to see the book deal come to life. Being forced to slow down gave me the time to get a better perspective on it and see that it had some fundamental flaws, and having worked on turning the whole thing over to God gave me the grace to make the very painful decision that, after a year of work, I needed to rewrite it from scratch. Now that I’m working on the rewrite and have an unbelievably precious and sweet 10-month-old daughter, I am overwhelmed with gratitude that my original plans got derailed.

Whether it’s with unplanned pregnancies, writing books, getting locked out of Adoration chapels or mistakenly getting fries instead of onion rings, I’ve learned over and over again through life’s little daily struggles this year that trusting God really does work out.

4. Kids behave better in church without snacks or toys

I was skeptical, but after reading a lot of the great advice in the comments to this post about getting kids to behave in church, I decided to try not bringing toys or snacks when we took our four young children to church with us. The results? It was a humiliating endeavor reminiscent of a pay-per-view WWF special that ended with my dragging one kid screaming out of church while the other clung to my leg and my husband bounced a baby on his lap in the cry room while trying to keep another child from tearing up the missalettes…but a big improvement from the times we brought snacks or toys! Normally on top of all that we had the kids arguing with one another about what we’d brought to amuse them, and they really didn’t seem to miss it. It’s made Mass much easier to manage (by our standards, anyway) without those extra steps and distractions.

I also realized, based on the comments to that post, that the best way to get kids to behave in church is to just jump in: start bringing them every Sunday, also to daily Mass too if you can swing it, and they’ll slowly but surely start to show improvements.

5. You can’t show Christ to people if you’re expecting them to fill you up

So many times since my conversion I would go to some event and think, “I am just going to shower these people with the love of God!” And then I’d walk into the event, see a couple people give me stares that I interpreted as not being friendly, and immediately slam the “Show God’s Love” lever down from the “on” to “off” position.

As I discussed in this post, I realized that the problem was that I was expecting them — not the Holy Spirit — to fill me up. And as long as you’re deriving your strength from other people, you’re not free to show them real love.

6. The root of stress is usually fear

As I waited nervously for the baby’s arrival early this year, wondering if I could possibly handle it all, I spent a lot of time thinking about stress. It had seemed like my daily stress came from a thousand difference sources, but when I really looked into it I found that it almost always came down to one thing: fear.

During Lent I committed to taking a one-day-at-a-time approach to working on this by simply trying to make each day “a day without fear.” I found that learning to let go of fear in the little stressors of daily life — traffic jams when I’m in a hurry, kids waking up at night, plans that go awry — was surprisingly difficult, and yet surprisingly fruitful. It made me turn to God on a moment-to-moment basis like I’d never had to before, improved my discernment process, and lifted so much anxiety off of my shoulders by simply trying to let go of fear.

7. You never, ever want to mess around with the poop fates

Before this year, I had only vague awareness of a mysterious law of the universe that says that if you laugh at another parent’s poop-related misfortune, the wrath of the poop fates will soon come down upon you. Then I laughed at a post in which another blogger had an embarrassing situation with a potty-training toddler, and soon I understood. The poop fates evidently weren’t finished, however, since it got all The Ring up in here when a couple of commenters who chuckled at my post reported back after putting away the rubber gloves and Lysol that it came back to haunt them, and Melanie Bettinelli experienced something similar as well. As 2010 approaches and I reflect on 2009 and ponder the new year, I think my biggest goal is simply to not mess around with the poop fates.

What were your biggest lessons in 2009?


  1. Michelle

    Love your list. I need to put something together, although I haven't been blogging as long as you.

    About the getting kids to behave in Mass…I'm a firm believe in "Bring 'em early and bring 'em often!" Way to go, Momma!

    I just love your blog…I havne't had the time to read everything, but you are truly blessed with your writing ability and your conversion experience. As a cradle Catholic, I LOVE watching and interacting with converts because (as I am sure you may have witnessed) sometimes we cradle Catholics take our beautiful faith for granted.

    I love being reminded how blessed I am to have my faith…yes, I need the reminder sometimes!

  2. Kimberlie

    I think my biggest lesson for 2009 was that the children that I have placed in my family are here to help me become a better person. Each of my three children are adopted. Each was adopted during later toddler years, our last one joining us just this year. Her adoption process was brutal. I fought it emotionally feeling like God had asked me to love this little girl who so obviously did not care for me. She has some challenging behaviors and is so much more whiny than my boys – which makes me crazy. BUT, after nearly a year, I look at her with genuine love, a love so full and overflowing it sometimes overwhelms me. I realized that my fear of mothering a daughter was behind the difficulties with this adoption. I also realized that as we are now pursuing the adoption of a boy we met at her foster home, we were fighting a spiritual battle for not one but two lives. If we hadn't adopted our daughter, we wouldn't have met our future son, and the truth is that he needs us desperately. God had given me a vision of four children even before we adopted our third. I railed at him about "why was He doing this to me?" Toddler adoptions are hard. They deplete emotional reserves. International adoptions are hard. They deplete emotional and sometimes financial reserves. But the pay off – well that is absolutely priceless. I have three amazing children who daily challenge me to practice faith, patience, love, generosity, and setting aside my selfish nature. This is what I learned in 2009.

  3. Super Doula Mom

    Great post!

    I've learned:

    1. Providence is shown gradually. I should quit looking for it immediately. It'll be here in time.

    2. Faith life is not a give to get situation. I've been going to Mass just because I know it's pleasing to God, not expecting Him to just turn around and say "Ok, so here's a mystery check for your three Masses this week".

    3. A blessing is found in the toughest situation you've ever faced.

    4. Everything for a reason. Quit questioning God. He'll let you know when it's right.

    5. You can only plan so much in your life. The rest is God. And there is something to the phrase "God helps those who help themselves"

    6. Charity doesn't always = $$$. Especially when you yourself have no $$$ to give, but talents and time, which mean more to God.

    7. Stop pining after the big house with the horse farm down the road. I'm meant to be here now for some purpose.

  4. Elizabeth

    I promise to NEVER mess with the poop fates…with a brand new baby boy, and a five year old who NAILED me in the face with poop when he was a baby…I will be seriously on the watch for poop related misfortune.
    I loved your list.
    God Bless, E

  5. Smoochagator

    Jen! I haven't been able to have any thoughts deeper than, "Do we have enough celery?" this week, and now you want me to reflect on what I learned this year? Eeek!

    Okay, okay, I'll try. I'll let you know when I come up with something 😀 Until then, I really like learning from YOUR lessons!

  6. itchingfootnotes

    "It won't kill me." It's a mantra I muttered often even as an aggressively-anti-religion atheist. It is, I suppose, a variant of your "fear/stress" point. We could have an entirely different world if everyone could just remember that point.

  7. Anonymous


    Your column was very inspiring, but in the spirit of love, I must disagree with you on two ideas. First of all, those of us with mental and physical illnesses cannot always take care of ourselves in order to feel good and pray better. The sick and suffering don't miss out on the benefits of a good prayer life. We have to pray right where we are right now, and it can be done. Secondly, I give thanks to God for everything, including the air conditioning, etc. Without God, nothing, even air conditioning, would be possible.

  8. Young Mom

    I wrote about what I learned at my blog, I enjoyed yours!

  9. ekbell

    I'm rereading The Cathedral Trilogy by Elizabeth Goudge as part of my christmas reading and your first point reminded me of this quote from The Dean's Watch

    …true darkness and the murkiness of ill-health could be intertwined, to one's confusion, and she would remember that other sonnet of Shakespere's and know that she must not

    "…permit the basest clouds to ride
    With ugly rack on his celestial face,
    And from the forlorn world his visage hide."

  10. Anne Marie

    Cool list Jen.

    I'm going to have to think some about mine. I feel like the poop fates have been all over me this year, well the figurative poop fates, not so much the literal poop fates, but still, it's been a stinky year and I'm glad to see it go.

  11. V

    I think the big thing I learned this year is that I am good at being a mother. At least to an infant, and at least to my baby. I've never excelled at anything else, ever, nor felt so happy doing it for so long.

    I've also learned that my husband is amazing and I couldn't be the woman I have become without his support.

  12. Jennifer @ Conversion Diary

    Anon –

    First of all, those of us with mental and physical illnesses cannot always take care of ourselves in order to feel good and pray better. The sick and suffering don't miss out on the benefits of a good prayer life.

    Thank you for your comment. I apologize if that point came across the wrong way. I only meant to convey that my spiritual director was pointing out that we should do what we can to feel the best we can — for some people feeling "good" might not be possible, and of course that doesn't mean they can't have a good prayer life. It's just that we should watch to make sure we're not feeling worse than we need to. She was mainly talking about people like me doing stuff like staying up until 1:00am reading when I knew I had a full day the next day. 🙂

    Thanks for the comments, all!

  13. Johanna Lamb =)

    Thanks for the great list Jen.
    I am glad to see 2009 end. It has been a trying year physically, but through all of it two things have emerged.

    1- My husband and I are becoming Catholic (from anglicanism)

    2- Having children is something that I DO want.
    I have PCOS, and I pray that God will work in HIS power to make this possible whatever way He wishes and that we will be open to that. I also hope that I feel better in 2010, but that's just an aside.

  14. Kelley

    I simply love your list for 2009, and I love your blog. It is wonderful to find a fellow Catholic with a refreshingly candid, well-written and well-rounded blog. I am glad to have found you and will now start thinking about what lessons I've been shown this year…

  15. Kelly

    I think you're really right about the root of stress being fear. For me it's always something of a vicious cycle, where I'm scared, and then it stresses me out, and then I feel really guilty because doesn't it mean that I don't REALLY trust God? I'd be really interested in knowing ways you combat fear, with large and small things.

    This was a great list–I might borrow the idea soon. 🙂

  16. Kelly

    P.S. Anonymous, as someone who's spent a lot of the year dealing with various physical and mental health afflictions in myself/those around me/loved ones, your comment really struck me. Thank you.

  17. Dani

    Wow..what have I learned in 2009. Well I was baptised & confirmed at the Easter Vigil in April so I would say everything.

    The number one thing I have learned is that God has me exactly where He intends me to be.

    I am hardly perfect. I sometimes give so much to my church by way of serving that I burn out and sometimes secretly resent signing up for things. I don't pray the rosary perfectly and stumble through Hail Holy Queen. I don't even pray perfectly. It's more of a "hey god" kind of conversation. I don't even get what a Novena is and I don't have 6000 sacrements spread all over my house. I have spiritual high spells and agonizing low spells. I can be the most gracious person and the most judgemental person. I sometimes forget to not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. And sometimes I don't confess everything at confession.

    But my love for God through his son Jesus has given me a strength I never knew I was capable of. I never stop learning through my imperfections as I stumble through my faith.

  18. Alice R

    I learned that religion is generally a good thing not a bad thing. I used to think it just made people arrogant and closed-minded but that's not true.

    I don't think I'll ever believe in God myself, but I realized that a lot of the lessons that go along with belief in God are good ones even if I'm right and there is no God. If believing in God helps people learn those lessons then their belief is a good thing whether God really exists or not.

    I also realized that if believing in God helps people not be afraid of death or the unknown then that's also a good thing and it doesn't mean they're weak or anything, maybe if I didn't fear the idea of immortality more than anything else I'd believe in God too.

  19. Patty

    I love this BLOG! EWTN entered our lives in 1990, the year our first child was born. She sat and listened to many of the programs … she knew the Rosary, Memorare, Act of Faith, before she learned how to speak. Twenty years later, she (and the three younger siblings) are EWTN Catholics!

  20. Abbey

    The greatest gift/lesson I received this year came in Romans 8:28. Patiently awaiting God's revelation of the good in all things is hard sometimes, but FAITH is what keeps me content because I KNOW that HE is going to reveal it to me in HIS own time!

    Happy New Year!

  21. Megan@SortaCrunchy

    I will rise up in affirmation to agree – BEWARE THE POOP FATES!

  22. Anonymous

    Just wanted to say a huge THANK YOU for passing along the suggestion of no toys/amusements at Mass… we tried it for the first time this week, and holy moly, it worked. Our 2.5- and 4-year-old girls were almost entirely quiet the whole Mass, with few (and totally acceptable) exceptions. Wow, wow, wow! I have no idea why this would work, but it did– and I'm so thankful. 🙂 Rebecca

  23. Kathleen@so much to say, so little time

    We have been struggling, not so much with sitting still at church, as we are struggling with "I HATE CHURCH! CHURCH IS BORING!" We sit in front, we talk him through, he has a children's missal–but he hates it, and it hurts me (b/c I'm a liturgist) and scares me (b/c I'm terrified of screwing up and my kids leaving the Church). Any suggestions on that???

  24. Anonymous

    I know this post was written over a year ago, but I just came across it and decided to share a life-changing lesson I learned recently. I now understand that when you walk with God, you walk next to Him and he walks next to you. He is not at a distance that will shrink once your sins are eliminated and He is not above you or infront of you, He is next to you. I used to invision myself looking up to God who was surrounded by a bright shinning light, but that sort of thinking is not accurately reflective of the Lord. When I finally understood this it helped me with a few things. When you know that He is beside you, you trust Him to work on your sins with you. You and Him are working together. This also helped me to feel a lot closer to God. It may seem as if I'm thinking of God as an imaginary friend, yet although He is a friend (both a quiet friend and a loud friend at the same time) He is certainly not imaginary. He shows His image to us everyday, in fact we ARE His image. I am also way more likely to do what Jesus would do now that I think of Him walking right beside me. It keeps me on the right track.

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