Hurry Up and Don’t Die: Life, Death and Lessons on Self Compassion & Forgiveness

MO 2005

MO 2005

I fell asleep at the wheel when I was 18 years old, shortly after graduating high school. Friends and I woke up at the wee hours of dawn to go to the Live 8 concert in Philadelphia. After an energetic 95 degree day focused on music and ending poverty, I drove friends home tired and dehydrated from the summer sun. After dropping off my last friend, I woke up at 12:15 AM with the caustic blast of an airbag flying into my face, quickly discovering that I ran into a telephone pole, splitting it in half, the upper portion now dangling from the telephone wire. I immediately called 911. Police came and asked if I had been drinking. “No. You can breathalyze me!” I called out, “I fell asleep!” “It’s just that this is a lot of damage for just having fallen asleep,” the officer retorted. As the ambulance came, I glanced heavenward in prayer, my soul in chaotic communion with God, and made a promise that I would live it right. Not take a breath for granted. I took my heart by the hand in firm grip. “You’re going to be passionate. Keep your complaints to a minimum. And above all, you’re going to take this life, love it, and love others,” I declared to myself, releasing my flexed, pointed finger and gritted teeth. I then proceed to cry, turning my fuming fingers into open palms, and slowly rested my tear-drenched face into them, learning a lesson on self-compassion and how absolutely compulsory it is.

MO 2005

MO 2005

I arrived at the hospital, where my dad met me bedside in an exam room. “I am so sooo sorry,” I apologized, leaning in for a hug. He reached back immediately. “I’m just glad you’re ok; I’m glad you’re ok.” The x-rays showed no broken bones, so with gauze and a pain prescription, I was sent on my way. “I’m sorry to wake you up, Dad. I’m really sorry for doing something so stupid.” “It’s ok; I’m glad you’re ok,” he persisted.
I fell asleep (in my bed this time) and woke up to a raw, scraped chin, fresh tender skin scattered among hardened scab. In the days to follow, I had loving support from friends and family. Two ten-year old girls that I coached came to my house with handmade cards that still hang in my room today. I remember telling them that I was afraid parents wouldn’t trust me driving their kids anymore as a babysitter. “Don’t worry, they’ll still trust you,” their little selves promised me. They gave me hugs and walked back to play at the neighborhood pool. A few days later, my name appeared in our local newspaper under police reports. Ashamed and embarrassed that the whole community could see my recklessness, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of love I received. Family gingerly encouraged me to slow down. To stop doing so much; to simply do what I’m doing, confident that it’s more than enough. I listened. For a little while at least. But over the past 10 years, this experience developed an impulse to “hurry up” and “do more” because I learned that we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow, tonight, or the next hour. I didn’t realize the promise I vowed to myself—to never to live out of step with my values, to always live with passion and bring life into the world—would be a tall order, an impossibly high standard that turned into “I need to do and experience everything as quickly as possible so that I don’t waste time.” 

I overextended myself in too many activities the next few years, developed an anxiety and depression disorder, and shamed myself for living in this anxious state when I “should” be living it joyfully to the full. Through therapy and medication, I got much better, but was still lusting after experiencing everything.

This turned into cutting corners trying to breeze through seasons of pain, confusion, and suffering because hey, we could all die tomorrow, right? And if I might die tomorrow, I certainly don’t want to waste today in sadness. So rather than allowing myself to fully experience difficult “wilderness” seasons, I tried to skip that part altogether. But that’s not how growth works, turns out, and no one is exempt from sadness, anger, and pain just because they might die tomorrow. 

Sometimes I rushed through conversations so that I could talk to that person, only to rush through that conversation to talk to this person, in hopes of developing rich, meaningful relationships as quickly as possible, wanting to meet everyone on this planet that I possibly could, forgetting that people aren’t penciled in items on a to-do list; we’re chock full of emotions, stories, things to learn and teach each other, and these deep connections take time. And time never seems to be on your side when you’re living like you might die tomorrow. Life never seems long enough when you act like it stops the same minute as your heart, forgetting about all I’ve been taught about life after death. I guess I’m a little scared of it turning out to be fallacy, but I know in my darkest moments that I need this hope of heaven. 

The “do more, quicker” mentality caused me to live erratically rather than learning something about patience, about seasons, about the beauty that comes from living the questions, the uncertainties. It caused me to search for answers now, which has some perks to it, but often has downfalls of arriving at wrong conclusions in a harried attempt to maximize time. We can’t know how things will turn out. We don’t need to, either. As Rainer Maria Rilke once said,

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I guess that’s it- that’s where I want to be right now. I want to live the questions, live the uncertainties, live the risks and searchings and yearnings. Live that now. The answers will come in their own timing. We have 24 hours a day and I can loathe that they aren’t enough or I can assert the fact that this is all we have, so enjoy them and be fully present.

The accident that I thought was supposed to teach me about “living life to the full,” I realize 10 years later was actually a lesson about grace, forgiveness, self compassion, to be gentle to myself and others. To learn that “living life to the full” is a fluid experience— sometimes it means pondering the Pleiades, tracing its outlines with your finger toward the sky, feeling the edges of each star from 50 million miles away. Other times it means identifying the thing you’re actually afraid of and conquering it. For me, that fear was wasting time. It meant reminding myself when I felt stuck as though getting nowhere, that I was indeed not wasting my life. It meant giving myself grace when I felt like a let-down, when I was working in a job I hated, stuck in a cycle of anxiety. And other times, living life to the full meant looking up at the sunset no matter the latitude or longitude, and finding it beautiful.

I’m also learning that although we’re not guaranteed tomorrow, there is such a thing as adulthood, and older adulthood, and retirement… so if my things aren’t crossed off my bucketlist by the time I’m 30, that’s ok; in fact that’s great-each of us might have a lifetime of adventures to look forward to, maybe, just maybe…

So may we live today like it could be our last and may we remember that we have a God who has a home for us even when that last day comes.

May we savor sweet conversation, taking our time through each word, hug, tender kiss.

May we realize that we will always want more time in the day, but even on our death bed, our time really hasn’t run out.

“I’ve told my children that when I die, to release balloons in the sky to celebrate that I graduated. For me, death is a graduation.” -Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross
One of the girls I coached, who gave me the angel figurine featured in this picture shortly after the accident.

One of the girls I coached, who gave me the angel figurine featured in this picture shortly after the accident. It still hangs in my room today. July 2005

On Unspoken Goodbyes and New Hellos

I often find myself thinking about this twenty something stage of life and how, from a billion different angles, people, places, and things are changing rapidly, like the wind, and I feel like a little wishie dandelion in a big field wondering why I’m no longer yellow, hoping I don’t get mistaken for a weed, and also hoping my seeds won’t blow away all at once. But I am not a dandelion; I am a human being, capable of eating, sleeping, and breathing and reflecting on what’s going on inside these skin and bones.

Ready to journal some of these feelings, I climbed into bed one night recently for a little quiet time. And, as I do like so many nights, I quickly checked facebook and noticed an old friend’s status change from “in a relationship” to “engaged.” I laughed, thinking back on pages in prayer journals from a few years ago, acutely aware now of the answer to that prayer. And that’s when a twinge of melancholy flooded in. I realized that now that this friend was getting married, reality was I would never see him and his family again, and we never got to say “goodbye.”

In that moment, I saw the faces of other friends, mostly from college, swirl around in my mind. Friends I no longer see or spend time with, pining to experience that amity all over again in the present. I’m sure you have those people in your life. Those people who are simply unforgettable, perhaps because of the way imago dei emanates from their soul, overflowing with rivulets of life, life, life, incandescent and uninhibited life.

I thought about the last time I spent with each of these life-giving people and what I would have said or done differently had I known we were going to lose touch and this would be the last time we would see each other face to face.

These changes of lost relationships stung, a hurt not easily pacified, and for the first time, I allowed myself in that moment to grieve their end.

I didn’t know that my twenties would have many times of unspoken goodbyes, unintentional “see ya laters,” only the “laters” never came.

I didn’t know just how absolutely painful it can be to let go of people who have influenced your life in some way, shape or form, knowing that they left an everlasting impression, having influenced your journey into who you are today.

I didn’t know just how often some people will just slowly fade out, like a setting sun sinking beneath the covers of the horizon. You can watch that sun retract behind the silhouette of the city, moving almost imperceptibly, and then sure enough that ruby red ball of fire is visible no more, leaving you with the beckoning of night, the closing of a day, the sunset just a memory stored away in the cells of your brain. And much like those sunsets, those memories with old friends slowly dissipate; your only connection left to such people being their status updates on Facebook or their phone number that you used to text, now dormant in your cell phone contacts list.

I’m not really looking for people to leave my life. Baz Luhrmann* once said, “Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few, you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle because the older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young.”

Feeling imbued to move beyond grief, I promised myself that from that night on forward, I would start treasuring and hugging those precious few. And to the rest, I would tell them how much I appreciate their influence in my life, or share with them something they taught me, or say thank you for something they did. Though you may end up being friends forever, you also can’t guarantee that you too won’t have an unspoken goodbye and the people around you now may one day in the future, however near or far away that may be, a page you click on Facebook and smile at from a distance.

Looking back on the past and ahead to the future, we’re left with a choice for today. May we speak words of gratitude with the people right around us. To lift someone up. To say thank you. To say something you’ve always wanted to tell someone, but were too shy or scared to do so. This is the time. This is it. There are no second chances. This is the present. This is all we ever have. So may you make the most of it. May you risk feeling awkward or that the other person may think you’re emotional, because you just might touch their life, like they touched yours. May you love well. May you let go of whatever it is that needs to be let go of with peace and courage, a departing coda to a particular journey of seasons and reasons. May we bind up past regret and celebrate brave, unfettered surrenders as we are tied closer to new unforgettables: of friends, of love, of laughter, of glimpses of Heaven on Earth and the face of your Maker in the most unexpected of places. May we accept life’s fragility and the passing of time, treasuring past memories, and then, in turn, may we make many, many more, because life doesn’t stop when the picture is hung in the frame, but rather, needs to constantly be explored, trampled upon, danced upon, cart-wheeled upon, and “whooped up!” because the story is being written and I don’t want to read the same jejune pages, scratching my head, wondering, “gee, where was I all of those years?”

Surely we can learn to make peace with change.
We can trade in rote conversation for beatific communion.
We can be grateful for every single person God has brought into our lives. Even if you no longer talk anymore, you can deep down appreciate how they have shaped some part of who are.
We can learn to say the words we’ve always wanted to say, ask the questions we’ve always wanted to ask, because we haven’t been offered unlimited chances and opportunities.

We can greet the cashier behind the counter by name, converse with the couple who just moved in, new to town, and we can actually listen to someone’s response when we ask, “how are you?” Much like Jesus with the woman at the well, we can take these seemingly ordinary tasks and interactions and recycle them for something better, something beautiful, something more compelling then the status quo.
And together, we can celebrate, that the God who brought such treasured people into our lives in the past can surely bring new community and deep relationships into our lives today.

So with unspoken goodbyes must also come new hellos. Today may you say, “hello” to the stranger who sits next to you on your morning commute and try to learn just one thing about them. May you say “hello” to new opportunities, to new friends, faces, fellow wanderers and travelers, to new risks, to new dreams, to something undiscovered, to something on your bucket list, to the deep end, to dares, to rolling down hills barefoot and unafraid…

Yes, get those hands waving hello, palms wide open, prepare those handshakes, click “register” for that race you’ve always wanted to do, get your camera out and take insanely beautiful pictures and as you do, may you smile with the morning dawn, grateful to be alive in no matter what season of life in which you find yourself.

*If you’ve never heard Baz Luhrmann’s “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen,” I highly recommend it. I listen to it every couple months for wisdom and inspiration.

To Team, With Love.

CAA champs——
Just some thoughts going through my brain. I wish I would have said them sooner, or maybe said them while I was on the team but was too shy to actually do so…. oh well. That’s life. You learn.

I’m looking over my college journals, the one from freshman year where you said, “You will do things you never thought possible, if only you stick with it.” I don’t know if you realize how impressionable those words were to an 18 year old, but I believed it. I sensed something. Something was stirring in me that wanted to chase after all that life had to offer. And for the time being, right now where I was, it meant feeling my arms pull through water, not sure where the energy will come from to complete the next stroke, but completely confident that IT WILL COME. It meant taking up 3-4 tables at the Glen during dinner and awkward conversations in class the next day with classmates who wanted to know, “Hey, why don’t you guys shave your legs?” After trying to explain it, usually unsatisfied with my answer, the conversation usually ended with something like, “Well I just don’t get it; why don’t you shave like normal so you can swim fast at every meet?” …It meant calling up a friend and telling them the story of the time when one of the boys put icy hot in a another guy’s swimsuit. I’ve since forgotten who did that to whom, and I can still laugh about it, probably only because it didn’t happen to me. It meant endless chants of “Tow-son D-Team” and the sound of kick boards being smacked against starting blocks, signaling the start of another meet, a new opportunity to be entirely present to pain, success, and wondering just how much further you can push yourself.

See there’s this feeling that you get, and when you get it, you get it all over again and again. It’s this core acknowledgement that anything is possible, but that you have to go through some…  …stuff to get there. I began to get mad, I began to get pissed, thinking, “Maybe I’ve been playing it a bit too safe. Maybe after all this, after everything, WE are the very person who limits ourselves the most. Maybe I’ve been more afraid of failing, or not making it, or doing it perfectly. Don’t compromise yourself. Don’t settle for safe. Go ahead, set a daring goal time…” And yeah, maybe pain and hurt have to happen in order to get there. Maybe “obstacles” or “problems” were just blessings waiting to emerge. Maybe these tests are bound to happen so we can be changed, made stronger, and discover all we are made out to be.

In that process of believing despite difficultly over the next four years, I learned many things, most of which I learned in hindsight, not the present moment. I learned that adversity is not just fine-tuning; you can truly choose to come out on the other side knowing you can handle whatever’s coming your way—expected or unexpected. It’s that feeling you get when someone steps on your territory—- WHEN SOMEONE TRIES TO TAKE AWAY YOUR CHAMPIONSHIP, YOUR RING, YOUR BANNER— and something inside you bellows a defiant, “NO.” It’s days of barely holding on, writing “FIGHT” in big, underlined capital letters in your class notes with the last ounce of energy you can muster… and one day being able to crossover that word, and replace it with, “FOUGHT :)” because you did make it to the other side…

But most importantly, of all I learned, what stands out the most is realizing that it’s easy to sign up for the things in life that have little to no risk. Anyone can do that. But to live a life worth telling stories about… for that you have to DO HARD THINGS. You have to put time and dedication into something and hear people say, “You’re crazy.” You have to do bold things like make goals that almost feel uncomfortable stating out loud, because as soon as you do, as soon as you set your eyes on that horizon, criticism will come. And when it does, don’t let anyone take your 20/20 vision away from you.

So when you have your doubts, go back over the story, and ask yourself some good questions, like, “How have I grown throughout the journey that got me HERE?-” -To where you are RIGHT NOW. Think about what it means to be a part of this team. Feel the presence of all the classes and alumni that have gone before you, whispering a sincere, “You can do this.”  Maybe they’re just names to you, but as teammates told me of Jen Irby, and I told teammates about Kristen Johanson, maybe one day, you’ll be a senior, telling some freshman about some girl who went before you and maybe, just maybe, you’ll believe that this is something in your life that you will NEVER forget and even if you only see their face at the next alumni event, that smile alone will speak of a thousand practices, tears, hugs, and cheers that the two of you, along with a network of teammates, parents, coaches, and friends, faced.

Looking back on this journey of teamwork has helped me find my voice. Though at times I still battle the self-defeating voices in my head, I’m more confident now, more willing to take risks, more present each day. I’ve given myself permission to “make waves” because the “no-wake zone” is far behind me; in fact I can’t even see it anymore.

So today, find your voice.
Find your energy.
Look someone in the eye and tell them “thanks” because you didn’t get here alone.

And don’t stop there.

Swim fast.
Swim proud.

Sow your seeds in the morning. Reap them up tonight where you can whoop-it-up with all that it means to be a swimmer here on this team, right here, right now.

With love, gratitude, and all the cheers I can echo verbatim in my heart,

Melissa Otterbein, aka, “Otter”

caa team


Lessons Learned in Running a Marathon

During my freshman year of college, I heard this talk at church based on a book called “The Dream Giver.” The gist of the story is that God has put dreams on each of our hearts, and through taking the courage to pursue those dreams, and facing any and all necessary conflict, God will not only change us in the process, but use our dreams to serve His purposes to change the world.

I remember walking back to campus that sunny Sunday afternoon with my friends, all jazzed up about the dreams that were filling up my heart, fresh blood filling my veins. And I started writing down dream after dream, some small, and some big, some common and some less common, and I created what has become known to me as my bucketlist.

In fact, if you hang around me long enough, you’re bound to hear me sporadically get inspired by an idea and I’ll shout out loud, “aw man, that’s going on my bucketlist!” (and as a side note, if you ever want to check it out, just come over and use my bathroom. It’s taped to the wall next to my mirror so that every day I am reminded of what I’m living for and, most importantly, who I’m striving to live for.)

Anyway, as you probably guessed by the title of this, a marathon was on that list. I didn’t really know what the greater purposes were behind that dream back when I wrote it on the list in 2006, but I couldn’t shake the fact that I just had to do one before I died.

So back in the spring of 2010, a few friends and teammates from college were doing the Baltimore Marathon and I knew that was my cue. At the time, I was reading this book called “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” by my favorite author Donald Miller (if you’re looking for a book that will get you up off of your… chair… I highly suggest you read this). In it, he says, “…humans naturally seek comfort and stability. Without an inciting incident that disrupts their comfort, they won’t enter into story. They have to get fired from their job or be forced to sign up for a marathon. A ring has to be purchased. A home has to be sold. The character has to jump into the story, into the discomfort and fear, otherwise the story will never happen.” The day I read that was the day I clicked “register now.” The story was happening. No more thinking, no more dreaming, no more “one day…” DOING.

And so since that fateful day back in April, I started learning some lessons. Some things I learned pretty quickly. Besides learning right away that 26.2 miles is a LONG distance, I also learned that…

-When you go for a run, don’t lock your car keys in the car unless you want to wait an hour for triple A to show up

-My toenails will probably continue to fall off every other year

-Don’t run past McDonalds after eating ice-cream for dinner… that won’t feel too good.

And I’m continuing to learn stuff. For one, I’ve been trying for three years to race for HopeSprings, a non-profit HIV ministry here in Baltimore. The Baltimore-Towson metropolitan area ranked second in AIDS cases in 2006. This organization was created out of the fact that the church has the call to love and engage in the culture around us. Since my involvement in the ministry in 2008, God has changed my life by showing me His incredible love and grace and beauty that HopeSprings so beautifully epitomizes. After several months of planning, and brainstorming, and dreaming, this year it will happen. You can look for it on the website soon ( This will be an opportunity to race for a purpose and change your life and others’ in the process.

I’m learning, or rather re-learning the practice of discipline. As a division 1 swimmer at Towson, I honestly thought I had that part covered. But staying motivated when you have 40-plus girls cheering each other on and a coach who won’t let you get away with skipping a workout and a championship title to defend looked a whole lot different then training mostly by myself for a race with no potential consequences if I didn’t end up “succeeding.”

But most importantly, I have learned that it’s easy to sign up for the things in life that have little to no risk. Anyone can do that. But to live a life worth telling stories about… for that you have to DO HARD THINGS. It’s my new motto now. DO HARD THINGS. When I’m trying to decide whether or not I should do something, I now have this filter where I ask myself, “will this be hard?…” “Yes.” “Good. Then it will be worth it.”

Hard things allow us to grow. Hard things take us outside of the safe confines and familiarity of our comfort zone. Hard things move us from sitting to standing, from dreaming to doing, from complacency to action.

Through my training and racing, I was reminded by how much better off we all are when we connect to each other, when we spur each other on, when we team alongside each other do life together. The first time my boyfriend and I went running together (in the rain nonetheless), I quickly realized that if I was going to keep running with him, I’d have some catching up to do. Literally. Besides the fact that he’s faster than me, he’s also a good 6-7 inches taller than me. I mean, we’ll be walking somewhere and I’ll either powerwalk to keep up with him or let out a friendly, “Brian!” and he’ll smile patiently as we adjust to each other’s strides. By the time we’re a mile in, we’re on different paces and I’m chugging along with my iPod, knowing he’ll be there at the finish line, as if to be saying, “come on, you can do this. We’re in this together.” And so that’s how it would go. We’d run and at the last stretched of my run, I would muster up all the energy left within me and there would be this awesome person just yearning to reach out and give a high five.

It’s kind of how it is with my dad too. For 58 years old (sorry Dad!), he still has so much kick in him that I really have to push myself to end a run by his side. Though I can probably one-up-him on distance now-a-days, this man ran alongside me every since I could remember, always with patience, always with endurance, always with heart.

Similarly, I was going on a run (by myself this time) around my neighborhood back in the fall. And I was about halfway through my run when I looked across the street and there was this man looking straight at me with his hands in the air giving me two giant thumbs up, smiling. And so I took off running. Those last two miles, I was running off of sheer adrenaline and encouragement. I mean, it’s as if God himself put this guy there, along my running route, to give me the motivation and encouragement I needed to bang out those last two miles.

Growing up in the Christian faith, there’s this verse I came across that’s kept me going through many practices and meets. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1-3). And so I’d be in the water envisioning the “great cloud of witnesses”- people who have inspired me and encouraged me to keep at it-having seen the dividends of hard work paid off.

And when I find myself short on faith, short on energy, going through the hard stuff, the conflict of life, I go back over the scenes of joy of seeing it all pay off, that moment when you’re reminded that every single step was all a part of the journey.

And so I saw a man bring me back to that point, back to that point where we see just why we all need to keep spurring each other on. That we can’t do it on our own. That even if we could do it on our own, it wouldn’t be half as enjoyable. That no one is alone. And it sounds so simple- spur each other on. Encourage each other. Each of us is going to have a time in our life when we are going to want to lay it on the ground, toss it in the trash, hang up the towel, and give up. But giving up is easy. Keeping together takes work.

On the day of the marathon, I was reminded of this again at mile 23. There was this man next to me, paralyzed from the waist down, using a seated bike to race through those 26.2 miles. And I watched him churn his arms as if to say no one is excluded from this “great race.” And I saw young women wearing t-shirts with names on the back of people who’ve passed away that they were running for, all the while Sara Groves shouting to me through my iPod of all the saints who’ve gone before

At some point, I realized that we’re ALL running this race, but it’s up to us to decide who and what we’ll run for and how we’ll get to where we’re going and when. That time will lapse regardless of whether or not you are pursuing your dreams and we might as well risk something big, something beautiful, or else we will die with unfulfilled dreams and unexplored possibilities. That life without such risks or dreams will result in living boring stories. And I think we are all made to want to live some daring stories. And if nothing else, next time you’re out in the neighborhood, give someone two thumbs up and send them along their way.