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A View from Here

Exploring Faith and CommunityMacalester Plymouth United Church

May 9, 2020
Rev. Corinne Freedman Ellis

I’d been hearing the buzz about this new Brené Brown podcast, Unlocking Us , for weeks. Brown, a social work professor at the University of Houston, is known for her research on vulnerability. Her popular books include The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly . People I trusted, who I knew were having similar pandemic struggles as I was (working while parenting, parenting while working, trying to convince my toddler to eat anything not made of sugar) – they were recommending her new podcast all over my social media feed. But I have to confess, I was skeptical. I wasn’t so sure vulnerability was what I needed in this moment when I feel more vulnerable than ever before. And I have to confess again, I’ve never read any of Brown’s books, not even the most popular ones. While I like to think I embrace vulnerability with my whole heart, the reality is, I like my truth-telling to be carefully boundaried and nicely messaged. I don’t like acknowledging imperfection. It’s not my thing.

But last week, after a deluge of news and a few hours of mind-numbing kids music, I decided my ears needed something new. So I opened up my Podcasts app and cued up the first episode, Brené on FFTs . And friends, I think I get it now.
FFTs is a profane term that stands for F***ing First Times. (She invites an alternative name for children and those who don’t use profanity: TFTs, or Terrible First Times.) Brown acknowledges, in a charming and funny way, how awful it feels to be new at something. You feel out of sorts. You don’t have access to all the creativity and strategic thinking you’re used to having. You know you’re not doing as well as you could be, but you don’t know how to make it better yet. You’re frustrated. Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Tiny perfectionist Corinne hated being new at things since I protested our move to a new town and school when I was in first grade. Grown-up recovering perfectionist Corinne still struggles mightily with transitions. And this pandemic is forcing us all to do all kinds of things for the first time, mostly out of necessity, bringing up these feelings of inadequacy for all of us. Brown notes that most of us who have a certain amount of privilege and who have reached middle age (which she defines hilariously as “38 to death”) have orchestrated our lives to avoid FFTs like the plague. Not 38 yet, but still yes.
So what do we do in this time when we’re all facing FFTs every day, feeling adrift and without our usual support systems to guide us? Brown gives a few tips, and I’ll offer a few too. Here are hers:

  1. Name your FFT. It seems obvious, but we often fear that naming a hard thing will give that thing power. It doesn’t. Naming the thing allows us to depersonalize it. It’s not us that’s broken, it’s that we’re doing our best in the face of a hard situation that we’ve never experienced before.
  2. Normalize your discomfort. No one enjoys feeling uncomfortable, but it’s only through discomfort that we experience growth. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel frustrated, sad, anxious, or confused. 
  3. Reality-check our expectations. We wouldn’t expect our best friend to be good at something the first time they try it, so why do we expect that of ourselves? Setting realistic expectations allows us to move forward.

From our faith perspective, I would add:

  1. Grace, grace, grace. Remember that everyone is doing “X in a pandemic” for the first time. Have grace with yourself and with those you encounter. Know that God has grace for you too in the angry, frustrated, not-behaving-our-best moments.
  2. Remember who you are and whose you are. We receive these wonderful promises from God: that we are beloved no matter what, and that we belong to God and to one another no matter what. In the midst of fear and anxiety, these promises are a shelter and a refuge.

So far this week, I’ve facilitated a virtual Youth Sunday for the first time, planted vegetable seeds for the first time (in toilet paper tubes, thank you for the tip, Stoicks!), and led Zoom Bible Study for the first time. Friday I will take my daughter in for her first in-office medical visit since the pandemic started. Each of these firsts feels new and different from similar things I’ve done before, and each has come with new and different anxieties. I’ve been embracing the FFT model and it’s all felt a little less hard. I was a skeptic, but I have to say, thank you Brené!
What FFTs are you experiencing this week? How could this FFT model help you find some ease as you journey through it?