Over the Falls

Over the Falls

Two autumns ago, our world unraveled. My husband’s mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died. Our youngest son took a helmet to the neck in a football game and spent the next four weeks convalescing. I ran over someone’s dog. Our neighbor fell off his porch, broke his neck, and died. We left our church due to an intractable conflict and we brought bed bugs home from a hotel. It was the most difficult season of our adult lives.

Obviously, when we flipped the calendar from October to November, it wasn’t as if everything suddenly turned around. Sizable checks were written to the bed bug sniffing beagle and the man who baked our house to 140 degrees. We had a bereaved neighbor and family members to support and new jobs to be found. Our emotions swirled and eddied, swiftly heading for one precipitous drop after another.

On the way to leaving our eldest at college — and just before all of the calamity hit — we visited Niagara Falls. Normally, I find water soothing and comforting but not there; the speed and the sheer force of the water as it plunged down those 160 feet terrified me. Niagara Falls is symbolic of how utterly out of control life can be. It was a prophetic pit stop though we did not know it at the time.

Perhaps part of why I had such a negative visceral reaction to Niagara Falls is that I like to be in control. When I was a young child, I discovered that controlling my body and my emotions (and others whenever possible) diminished my fears and insecurities. For example, classmates teased me relentlessly because of my cavernous dimples. It didn’t take me long to conclude, “If people tease me when I smile me and I don’t like how it feels to be teased, I’ll stop smiling.” This and other such choices worked flawlessly but resulted in a lifestyle that necessitated relentlessly monitoring and controlling every thought and facial expression for the explicit purpose of avoiding humiliation, shame, or someone’s anger.

And then Jesus showed up and messed with my modus operandi. Passages such as, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it” (Luke 17:33), made it increasingly obvious that I had to face my fear of being out of control and learn to trust God as well as those unpredictable human beings.

Embedded habits are difficult to extricate. Though I desired to follow the ways of Jesus, I continued to assume that successful relationships were contingent upon my not disappointing or angering anyone. Fifteen years into this faith venture, God began to disassemble my spin machine by helping me to understand that I was actually manipulating my friends and family by only allowing them to see me from a favorable vantage point.

I didn’t willingly sign up this graduate level lesson. It happened during a time when we had three sons under the age of six and my husband worked three jobs. I was tired, angry, lonely, and increasingly unhappy. While praying (venting, more likely) one morning, I sensed God asking me a question: “What would it look like for you to let go?” I remember actually gasping and then a second later, sobbing uncontrollably.

Letting go was what I most wanted. I wanted to stop being perfect. To stop getting it right. To stop being the one who solved everyone’s problems and fixed everything that broke. I wanted the freedom to fall apart in public, even to have smudgy black mascara under my eyes and not worry about how others perceived me. But in order for that to happen, I had to stop trying to control everything and allow myself to go over the metaphorical falls.

Despite the fact that I have successfully plummeted (successful meaning I did not die) more than once, I occasionally turn and frantically swim in the opposite direction of the cascade. Striving for perfection comes more naturally than living vulnerably. But sometimes — like the autumn from hell — I have no choice; the current is simply too powerful and I am too weak. In those moments and seasons when I can’t grab a low hanging branch to stop the inevitable, I grab hold of Scripture:

So if you are suffering in a manner that pleases God, keep on doing what is right, and trust your lives to the God who created you, for He will never fail you. (1 Peter 4:19)

Now, rather than fighting to prevent myself from falling, I fight to believe these words, because someday, I’m convinced that I might actually enjoy the ride.

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Dorothy Littell Greco works as a photographer, writer, and speaker. Her passion is helping others find their way through this sometimes confusing world. She and her husband have three sons and one daughter-in-law. You can find more of Dorothy’s work on her website or by following her on Twitter (@dorothygreco) or Facebook.

  • Thank you, Dorothy: I really appreciate this post, especially the fact that you’re sharing from the perspective of 2 years after a time that sounds so difficult. I lost my mom to cancer less than six weeks ago; today one of my parents’ closest friends will be buried after having a stroke last week. I have a work project coming up that will probably mean I need to resolve a long-standing conflict with a co-worker/friend; I’m not sure I have what it takes to do that. Actually I’m sure I do NOT have what it takes — so your encouragement to trust God through suffering and know that He will never fail is exactly what I needed to hear today.

    • Jeannie, Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment. I am sorry for your loss. May He sustain and strengthen you in the midst of your raging waters. Blessings.

  • These are words that give strength to feeble knees. Thank you.

  • This is such a beautiful reminder. Thank you!

  • Sheila Reeder

    Thank you again for the beautiful reminder. I think I struggle every day at some level with letting go of “being perfect” – perfectionism is a harsh taskmaster. But just reading your post, reflecting on the last 5 years I can see how much I have let go and I am so thankful for reminders like this that push me to keep letting go – because there is nothing easy about it! That verse from 1 Peter hit me in a new way today. Wow! Continued blessings to you Dorothy!

    • Sheila, Sometimes I wonder if I have an unrealistic expectation of myself on this. Sort of being a perfectionist about letting go of perfectionism. I want to be done but my guess is it’s going to be a life-time lesson. Bless you across the miles!

  • When Dad described the place where we were going to be moving, he described the cataract — Niagara Falls — not the city near and in which I would grow up. I had nightmares before we moved. I measured wherever I was in terms of its distance from the observation area near the American brink — that one day crumbled and fell into the gorge. We became a family tourist destination with Dad as tour guide so I got to know a lot about the geography and history, but I struggled with my suppressed terror among our relatives. It got worse when the Girl Scouts helped with the Maid of the Mist festival and I heard the perhaps untrue lore that Native girls were sacrificed to its thunder. I knew a Native lady and was horrified trying to imagine what would lead anyone to harm Louise, her children, or their ancestors. Their vulnerability made me more vulnerable. I heard that bodies were regularly found below the falls and along the river. I read about all the daredevils who tried to “beat” the Falls and usually failed. In high school, a friend who lived up-river invited us for a swimming party. For the first time I felt the strength of the river, even a couple of miles above the upper rapids. I was just strong enough to swim back to the dock and I did not repeat the risk although my stronger classmates seemed unafraid. I did not trust them. My fears were not only for my weakness but from not trusting others. Your insights apply equally to my lack of trust of others, and of God to answer my prayers for them.

    • Laurna, Thank you for this vulnerable offering. (And I’m somehow heartened to learn that I am not the only person who feared this place!) I’d be curious to hear whether you have returned as an adult and what your reactions were. Many blessings, Dorothy

      • As I have not remained in the area, my mental defenses against the implicit dangers of the Niagara River Gorge are as poor as when I was ten years old. Five years ago I returned for the 50th anniversary of HS graduation; I let my husband take the scenic walk along the river without me! Accompanying us as tourists, our two youngest sons–Dan recently
        recovered from ten years of schizophrenia–were separated from my
        husband and from me (and us from one another) on the Canadian side above the Falls. I would have
        preferred to be anywhere else, of course, and when they went missing I
        was frantic. How vulnerable was Dan to the hypnotic attraction of that rushing water? How strong was his self-control? Eventually,
        we found one another. The guys were happy to have enjoyed time apart from their parents — which of course is entirely normal.
        Except that for years Dan was the furthest thing from normal. They
        both had the pleasure of looking patronizingly on my fretting with gracious and
        lordly disdain. Such a joy to know Dan had gained the same mental stability as his brother.

        However, I also saw a dear friend who may lack that kind of stability. She has contemplated stepping into the river, although she is a Christian and has no history like our son Dan. She had a career elsewhere and returned to our hometown in retirement. She has long relied on a commonly prescribed medication that I consider addictive and damaging. Last September, I returned for the 55th. I had wonderful time reconnecting with people but avoided the river although moonlight on the rough water was a view many (including my friend) wanted to enjoy from the balcony-terrace of the the hotel dining room. When I lost my sense of direction the first night, ending up in an industrial area where it could have been dangerous to leave my car, I also was aware of my proximity to the river. I used the distant illumination of the cataract as a landmark to find my way back to my friend’s house.

        She had been hospitalized the day I arrived — as it turned out, through her doctor misinterpreting a readout from her ECG. According to the specialist, the machine must have malfunctioned. (Or the doctor?) Although my friend is enviably fit, she was given “end of life counseling” and asked whether she wanted to be revived if the phantasm of a heart attack turned into a reality. She decided she did not. She is single and has no close family nearby. What role does her medication play in her lack of optimism? I wonder if the river has been an undercurrent in her thinking all her life? I met other friends whose tremendous faith, deeply satisfying experiences, difficulties met triumphantly with Jesus, and intense interest in and caring for others — 50 years of living packed into short stories — inspired me. I doubt the nearby Falls offers a treacherous temptation to them. If my friend had a different doctor who offered different advice and medicines might she, too, be more optimistic about what life still has to offer?

        Thanks for bringing up these memories, Dorothy. I think it’s time I picked up the phone and called her.

        • Laurna, I don’t know whether to say a simple thanks for sharing so vulnerably or I’m sorry for stirring things up for you! Either way, I do hope that God uses this and your willingness to dig in to bring more healing. (Hope you got through to your friend and it was a blessed conversation.) Blessings, D

          • I don’t mind the stirring; I think we are supposed to fear and be in awe of some things. Nature, to which your amazing photos draw us more closely, speaks of the awful and awesome nature of God — not only in the contemplative gaze into the heart of a blossom or a jewel dewdrop but in the overwhelming forces that provide your metaphors for the trials of life. I did reach my friend and the timing of that call was awesome, too. Profound thanks for the Spirit in your words and images.

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Over the Falls

by Dorothy Greco time to read: 3 min