When we moved into our home eight years ago, I was excited to have a walk-in shower with floor to ceiling tile. Though John and I had been married for seven years and I was a mother of three young kids, picking out the tile for my own home served as further confirmation in my mind that I am, in fact, a real grown up now. After all, I picked out my own tile.
The day the tile was installed, I was giddy. It was lovely and clean, and I enjoyed it instantly. But weeks later I started to see a problem with it. The pattern on the tile camouflaged dirt and grime, which meant that by the time it finally looked dirty, it was well past the point of a simple rinse-and-wipe and needed a full-fledged scrubbing.
In many ways this shower situation illustrates a deeper truth about my soul. I’m going through life at what seems to me to be a reasonable clip—a meeting here, a deadline there, and another trip to the grocery store. While I’m doing the regular things that construct a life on the outside, I begin to feel exhausted on the inside. By the time I realize this, I’ve already traveled far past the point of healthy margins.
As it turns out, my soul and my schedule don’t follow the same rules. When my soul feels held hostage by hustle, every area of my life is affected. The relationship dearest to me is often the last one to get attention: my marriage. I’m discovering one of the best ways for me to cultivate a healthy marriage is to create space for my own soul to breathe.
A Simple Way to Create Space
One of my favorite ways to create this kind of space is to sit in the quiet, even for only a few minutes. You can do this too—set a timer for a small amount of time, close your eyes, and allow yourself to sit as a child in the presence of God, without an agenda.
This practice is hard to do simply because it is intangible. It isn’t a time for Bible study or lots of talking prayer; although both of those things could be part of it. Eugene Peterson describes this practice best in The Jesus Way: “We wait for our souls to catch up with our bodies.”
It’s not easy for me to sit still for any amount of time, so I’ve started holding a soup or cereal bowl in my hands as a way to keep my still. The purpose of a bowl is to receive and hold something within it. Like that bowl, my soul is made to receive from God rather than to achieve for God.
During these few moments of silence, I become aware of the signs my soul has been sending to me all along—signs that I need this margin in my life in order to receive the relational gifts God longs to give. Perhaps some of these signs will sound familiar to you as well.
Receive Love, Reject Hurry
Impatience is one of the first signs that my soul needs room to breathe. On the surface, my impatience is directed at everyone around me: slow drivers, lagging children, or a colleague who won’t return an email. Impatience with others masks a deep impatience I have with myself. When I am unable to be kind and patient with myself, I am unable to offer kindness and patience to others.
My deep soul impatience is a result of the false belief that if I finish this project or have that conversation or meet those people or achieve that success or finalize those decisions or get things organized, then margin will be waiting for me as a reward. It won’t. Margin only comes with intention, never by default.
The relational gift God longs to give when I’m feeling impatient is love, but receiving his love takes time, perspective, and a willingness to be still and know he is God.
Receive Laughter, Reject Shame
A second sign that my soul needs room to breathe is that I don’t laugh much. I’m less playful with my family, less able to take a joke, and I’m guilty of taking myself too seriously. I can’t tell you the number of frustrating conversations John and I have had that can be traced back to one of us taking ourselves too seriously.
One surprising gift that comes from creating soul space is the ability to see how shame can infiltrate nearly every area of our lives. When I see myself through the lens of shame, I’m unable to truly receive love or attention from my husband. I question his motives and doubt that his kind words are true.
The trick to be aware of is this: Shame doesn’t show up in obvious ways. It doesn’t knock on the front door and loudly proclaim, It’s me, Shame! I’m hungry and want to feed on your well-being and self-esteem. Let me in!
Instead, shame shows up small, leaking in through the number on the scale, a phrase in an email, or a difficult conversation. Shame hovers. When I’m in a state of hustle and hurry, I don’t recognize shame for what it is, and I welcome it into my mind and heart.
Creating space for my soul to breathe means cooperating with Jesus by rejecting shame in all its forms: shame about my body, shame about my giftedness, and shame about not being or doing enough. This space helps me have a kingdom perspective so I’m able to see shame for what it is. On the outside those quiet moments in my sunroom chair may look like a waste of time, but I know all too well how important they are. These quiet moments in the presence of God remind me to receive the gift of wholeheartedness from my Father so that I can offer my family the gift of laughter and a light heart.
Start Small, Celebrate Progress
One final sign that my soul needs space is when I feel an impending sense of doom about all there is to do. When I am carrying this kind of burden, it’s difficult for John and I to connect because I’m too overwhelmed to be fully present or even to communicate my anxiety to him. It’s as if life becomes one giant, messy shower I’ve been trying to clean, but I simply can’t keep up with demand.
Several weeks ago I looked at that shower and decided to stop waiting until it gets dirty to tackle the whole thing at once. Instead, I planned to clean one tile every day and then move methodically to the next tile in the row. That’s all. No more and no less.
It’s a discipline because I have to do a little every day, but it’s a light burden because it’s only one tile. My shower has never looked better, and the physical act of cleaning my shower has become a spiritual lesson for me. I’m learning to start small and celebrate progress.
The other night John and I were settled in on the sofa, ready to watch one of our favorite shows. Before the opening music started, he hit the pause button on the remote and turned to me and said, “Before we watch, is there anything you’d like to talk about?”
I was pleased but not surprised.
Three years ago, I would have been surprised. It would have been too random. I would have assumed he needed to talk about something. I might have been worried.
The past few years have been for us a practice of creating space for our souls to breathe by embracing these small moments together. We’re cleaning one tile at a time rather than waiting until the whole thing is a mess: one small conversation before waking the kids, one quick lunch between meetings, one curious question before the show starts.
Focus on one tile at a time. No more, no less.
When John asked if I had anything I wanted to talk about, I answered with a shrug. “Nothing I can think of.” But then, on that Tuesday evening in our fifteenth year of marriage, I continued to talk for ten minutes while he listened. Sometimes these moments seem inconsequential, but we never regret them.
Emily P. Freeman is a writer who lives with her family in North Carolina. She is the author of several books, including her most recent release, Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World. She writes to help you create space for your soul to breathe. Find her at emilypfreeman.com or on Instagram @emilypfreeman.