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Episode 52 & 53: Exploring Collective Grief with Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber

On this episode of our Alchemy Series, sponsored by Wells Fargo and Prudential, we speak with Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. Nadia was our most popular guest to date, not to mention one of our first guests, when we began our podcast in 2018. We knew we had plenty to catch up on and that Nadia would be a perfect guest to offer guidance during these confusing times of COVID-19. An ordained Lutheran Pastor, Nadia is not your typical faith leader. She often writes and speaks about personal failings, recovery, grace, faith, and really whatever the hell else she wants to. As she puts it, she always “sits in the corner with the other weirdoes.”

She served as the founding pastor of the House for All Sinners & Saints in Denver, CO and is the author of three NYT bestselling memoirs: Pastrix; The Cranky, Beautiful Faith Of A Sinner & Saint (2013), Accidental Saints; Finding God In All The Wrong People (2015) and SHAMELESS; A Sexual Reformation (2019). Shameless was written as a challenge to the antiquated ideas our society views sex, gender, and our bodies.

Her latest project is her recently released podcast, The Confessional, presented by PRX and The Moth. As host, she interviews folks about something in their lives that they did or said that they are not proud of – something for which they need grace. In creating this podcast, Nadia aims to normalize conversations about being human and to help people feel less alone in their failings. Rather than confession and absolution, it’s admission and benediction.

Our hosts, Erik and Dave, reconnect with Nadia to hear about her new Podcast and to ask her for advice for those of us struggling (that’s all of us) during this particular time in history.

Additional Resources:

» Hear an extended version of our interview with Nadia here.

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Episode Transcript

Nadia: I think we got to reach for the both/and. The grief people are experiencing the suffering. I think you can tell the truth about that and about how much fear we're living in and say, "I have really loved sitting down and eating all my meals with my daughter and my boyfriend. There's been a way that this slowing down has made me cherish things." Just like we can be simultaneously sinner and saint, this can be simultaneously horrible and devastating, and beautiful and unexpectedly joyful.

Erik: It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon and I happened to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to aluminate the universal elements that exist along the way. That unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in the summit exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call no barriers.

Today we meet Nadia Boltz-Weber who's an ordained Lutheran Pastor, founder of House for All Sinners & Saints in Denver, Colorado, the creator and host of the podcast, The Confessional and the author of three New York Times bestselling memoirs, including her most recent Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. Nadia writes and speaks about personal failings, recovery, grace, faith, and really whatever the hell else she wants to. Enjoy the conversation.

Dave: Welcome back to our weekly, No Barriers podcast series, where we continue to explore this extraordinary moment in our lives while remaining true to the theme we've always emphasized here, which is idea that what's within you is stronger than what's in your way. Special thanks to Prudential and Wells Fargo for their generous support of this podcast series. Well, Nadia, we're coming up on our 50th episode here and we wanted to bring you back because first and foremost, we believe you'll offer some really great insight into this unique moment in our lives. And in addition, our previous conversation with you, which for our listeners who haven't heard it, it's episode 16, check it out. It was our most downloaded ever. So Nadia, welcome back to the show.

Nadia: Oh, I'm so glad to be back with you guys. If I remember correctly, the last time I was on, it was right after a blizzard and I had to drive through much snow to get to you. Yeah. So I had a barrier just to get to you guys, but I was stronger and I managed to get there. And the barrier now is that it's 8:30 in the morning and I managed to also get here. So I think your theory about what's in us is stronger than what's in our way has proved true, that I've been here twice now.

Erik: That inner strength to set your alarm clock.

Nadia: Yeah, I know. Exactly.

Dave: Well, Nadia, I'd love to hear, you serve so many people in your work as pastor, writer, speaker, comedian. What are some of the themes you're hearing from the community you serve right now? What are people wrestling with?

Nadia: You know, there's just so much. I think one of the things is that everybody is experiencing some form of grief right now and it keeps coming and being in grief is so sort of disfiguring because the thing that you've lost, you don't ever get back. And the experience of losing it is almost new every day, because it's one more day that that loss is still present. So, a singular loss can present itself in terms of grief in new ways every day. But what we're dealing with is new things to grieve every day that. Now it's that, "Oh my gosh, I was holding onto the hope that I could still go and fly across the country when my grandchild is born in July," and realizing now today, a new grief is, "Okay, I don't get to do that." That one was just a made up example. But my 21 year old daughter, her whole world revolves around being able to work at the summer camp that she grew up going to, now she's on staff and realizing she's probably not going to be able to get that. So there are these new things to grieve every day, things that are canceled, things that you won't get back. Grieving is a human thing because everybody loses people and loses things, but we get to at least fucking take turns, generally. And now, it's everyone. It's the whole planet. And so how do you deal with the exhaustion of that, the relentlessness of that, the it's every single day, it's not going away of that.? That's what I think people more than anything are trying to manage in this moment.

Erik: Yeah. It feels like a weight, doesn't it like?

Nadia: Yeah.

Erik: It's like a weight that can tend to feel heavier if you allow it to.

Nadia: For sure.

Dave: And you are someone Nadia, who has worked with people for your entire career who are experiencing grief of some form or another. And so, with this collective grief that we're experiencing, what do you advise us? How do we handle it?

Erik: Because I've heard you talk about Nadia, this idea as well, that there's a kind of a fine line between anxiety and hope.

Nadia: Right.

Erik: It's kind of like they're close neighbors, which I thought was really fascinating.

Nadia: Yeah.

Erik: Yeah.

Nadia: One of the ways that we need to learn how to do this moment is to figure out, "Who can I just take turns with? I'm going to be the one who just can't keep it together today and you can hold that because we both know, it's going to be you tomorrow." And so we are realizing how much we need each other because of the separation that we're experiencing right now. But I think we're trying to figure out how do we just take turns being the one who can't deal with it is pretty critical. At least it's been critical for me.

Dave: Yeah.

Erik: So Nadia, your new podcast is called Confessional. I'm curious why you started that new podcast and also why are confessionals so important for people?

Nadia: Well, I think it came from being in two different communities that sort of practice some form of confession, both the Lutheran church and Alcoholics Anonymous. So both of those communities have a sort of more formal process for that and realizing how needed it is and how cathartic it is. And also just sort of being really aware that these worst moments of our lives, the times when we were at our worst, where we did something that hurt other people, or we said something horrible, or we did something we regretted that those are these ghosts that just can haunt us our whole lives. I think that's okay, but I think telling the truth about that stuff and allowing it to sort of metabolize into our spiritual process as maturing humans is a natural thing. And yet there aren't a lot of mechanisms available for it. The other reason I did it is that I just have always wanted to feel less alone. And I feel less alone when somebody tells me something horrible about themselves. I don't think that we are just the sum total of the worst thing we've done, as Bryan Stevenson says. So that's why I opened up the confessional.

Dave: Nadia, you write and talk a lot about shame and grief and compassion for ourselves. A lot of the people I interact with have this feeling of hearing stories of all these great things that people are doing during this moment and a sense of almost like, "I'm not doing enough, I'm not being good enough parent. I'm not being a good enough employee. I'm not being a good enough teacher of my kids now that I'm locked at home with my kids." And in a more subtle way, there's a lot of shame in that in my mind of like, "I'm not being as good as I should be in this moment." Can you give us a little perspective on that?

Nadia: Boy, only that I totally relate. And also, grief takes up a lot of bandwidth and I think just having compassion for ourselves and other people around that, because it really is a shared grief. Human beings we're wired to take turns grieving. Like that's how the whole system is set up and we're not taking turns. We're all doing it now and we're doing it in different ways. Those of us who've lost our ability to buy groceries are going to be grieving in a very different way than those of us who are missing our vacation to Cabo. But it's all grief and so if that is taking up so much of our bandwidth, and then we have zoom calls we have to be on that are like required and we have to feed ourselves in our family. Boy, how much is left over really? For some of us, there's not a lot left over to learn a new fucking skill, to like master Spanish.

Dave: I'm curious, as we're going through this collective grief, where do we find the space to share it with others and not just put on our best face all the time? Because I think that it's weird to share this kind of stuff in a zoom call. How do you find the space to really share how hard this is with someone when you can't do it face to face?

Nadia: Yeah. I think just people allowing for a culture of turn-taking is really important. To be like, "Look, I'm going to be a hot mess today. I'm going to totally melt down. And maybe it's your turn Tuesday." Not like scheduling, but just allowing for that. You know what I mean? That we just are going to have to take turns.

Erik: You talk about grief and shame and these things being like a weight and I feel that sometimes. One of the things I've always kind of wondered about Christianity was, I'd sit in church and I'd say like, "Wow, it's just like the premise that's everyone's bad and everyone's guilty and everyone's a sinner.

Nadia: Yeah, right. Totally.

Erik: But you're saying is kind of the opposite or expressed in a different way, which is like, "We all do things that give us shame and grief and regret and all this stuff, and it just weighs you down and it takes up so much space, but we need a way to lift that weight off ourselves. Right?"

Nadia: Well, that stuff is true. The stuff that weighs us down is true, but it's not the most true thing. Like the most true thing is that we have capacity for kindness, for beauty, for selflessness, for love, for passion. I mean, I just see human beings as being very complex. Like on my wrist, I have tattooed in Latin Simul Justus et Peccator, which means simultaneously sinner and saint. We're both things at the same time. I read a gorgeous passage from Glennon Doyle's book Untamed that just came out a couple of weeks ago. I read it yesterday. Where she just has this beautiful description in that book about we're both and people. If we think that we're all good and we have nothing we struggle with or no lessons to learn, we're telling ourselves the wrong story. And if we think we're all bad and we're not worth anything and not worthy to be loved or to be listened to, we're also telling ourselves the wrong story. So I think a lot of it is just how do we be right-sized.

Dave: Yeah. I think that the idea of compassion right now is also something that I read and hear a lot about. You hear about people reaching out and helping frontline workers in COVID-19. You hear about communities really focusing on supporting their own community. And I think, "Geez, I don't know if I have energy to be compassionate beyond my own core unit. Where's my extra energy to be compassionate beyond that?" But then I think when you do find that possibility, it can actually give you more energy than you expected when you'll be able to kind of extend that compassion out. It can fuel us.

Nadia: Yeah. I mean, it depends what kind of personality you have, because there are a lot of people for whom their sort of default broken thing is to meet every other person's need before theirs. So for them a message of saying, "Hey, it can be life giving and bring you energy and free you from your own shit if you can be of service to others." That's not a life giving message. But there are people who are sort of really wrapped up in themselves and constantly thinking about how everything in their life is negatively impacting them and where man, the best thing they could do to reach for a little freedom in their life is to figure out how to be of service to another person. Everyone's wired differently.

Erik: So, I was talking to a friend of mine who is a person of faith like the other week and he was saying that, here's the challenge. We're going to come out of this crisis and then we all think we're all suddenly going to be happy, right? Like, "Oh, that'll bring me happiness." And he's like, "Oh, that's kind of false expectations. Don't think you're going to find ultimate happiness and fulfillment in your spouse or in your life or me with my climbs." Even in Christianity, sometimes God feels distant and, you're like, "Why aren't you listening to me? Why aren't you there for me?" And he said, so there's kind of this acceptance of discontent in life. Part of me was like, "This is depressing, dude." And the other part of me thought, "That speaks to me, that maybe that is okay."

Nadia: Yeah. [crosstalk 00:15:20] Maybe the challenge is, "Where do you find centeredness a type of serenity or peace within an imperfect centeredness, within discontent, within people not meeting your expectations?" Because that stuff is unavoidable. Honestly, nobody's going to always meet your expectations. You're not going to always have the paycheck of your dreams. You're not going to always accomplish everything and have the body fat percentage you had when you were 19. When all of this happens, when I get that career, when I get that person to love me, when I get that body, then I will pull the lever and happiness will come my way. If I get all of it in the right categories. That's not how it works. I think a spiritual life is so much about acceptance. It's about acceptance and saying like, "There are so many things in the world that if I accepted them, rather than fought them, I would have a lot more peace." It's a hard lesson. Yeah.

Dave: Nadia, what do you think about the thread of conversation that you may hear in the media that says that we should treat this time as a gift to us? That this is a unique opportunity to have with our families or on our own, or the earth is finally getting a chance to breathe. All these things that are like kind of turning something that feels pretty devastating into the gift idea.

Nadia: I think we got to reach for the both/and. The either/or thinking is not helping us a lot. Both things can be true. The grief people are experiencing, the suffering the way in which this pandemic is revealing what has already existed, social inequality, a broken healthcare system, government corruption. It's not creating those things. It's just revealing those things. So I think you can tell the truth about that and about how much fear we're living in, all that stuff. And say like for myself, I have really loved sitting down and eating all my meals with my daughter and boyfriend. Like we usually don't do that. I've been cooking a little bit more. There's been a way that the slowing down has made me cherish things about my home that I've never cherished like that both things can be true. Just like we can be simultaneously sinner and saint, this can be simultaneously horrible and devastating and beautiful and unexpectedly joyful.

Dave: [crosstalk 00:18:21] Well said. And Nadia, can you tell our listeners where they can find your podcast?

Nadia: Oh, you can find it anywhere. You can listen on my website. If you're not used to downloading podcasts, you can go to NadiaBoltzWebercom and just listen to it there. Stitcher, Spotify, Apple podcast, it's available. It's available everywhere.

Dave: Excellent.

Nadia: And then also I have an online publication on Substack. So it's called The Corners and people can find me there as well.

Dave: Excellent. Well, Nadia, it's been wonderful having you return to our show and give us some perspective on the things that we are wrestling with right now in our lives. I encourage all of our listeners to check out the confessional. It's just a wonderful listen and really insightful. So we appreciate your time, Nadia. Thanks so much for joining us.

Nadia: Oh my pleasure. Thanks. You guys. I love what you're about. Thanks so much.

Erik: Cool. In college I read a bunch of Russian literature like Dostoevsky, and [inaudible 00:19:24] Brothers Karamazov. It's like everything you want to know in a book, everything you don't want to know about life, you read in this book. Well, there's a lot of good stuff in this interview so it's hard to carve it down, but I mean, I guess I'll just go back for me, Dave, to this idea of all this shame and guilt and grief that people I think are experiencing now, maybe exponentially. And how do you clear it? I just think it's a really important thing that we all are in the process of doing right now. And, also this idea of discontent. Like, "Hey, it's okay to be accepting of imperfection on every side of life." I kind of like that too, because it takes the pressure off.

Dave: Yeah. And I felt that the most compelling part of the discussion for me personally, was this idea that we are always living in this duality and we should think of these things less as either/or and more as both/and. So, is this time a gift to us? Sure. Parts of it are. Is this time horrible and devastating? Yes, it is both of those things. And we have to accept that it is both of those things. Just like we have to accept the goodness and the evil inside of each of us. I think that's a very powerful lesson to remember.

Erik: Yeah. Way to go out with a deep subject, Dave.

Dave: Yeah. Thanks. Thanks, Eric. Well, thank you everybody for listening. As always, you can find our show notes at nobarrierspodcast.com. If you are looking for some activities to do with your middle school student or you know a middle school student, we encourage you to check out New Barriers Bounce, which is an online learning to experience that teaches students about resilience in these troubling times. You can find that at nobarriers@usa.org. Thanks so much for listening.

Erik: Alright. Thanks everyone. No Barriers.

Jeff: The production team behind this podcast includes senior producer, Pauline Shaffer, executive producer [Diedrich Jong 00:21:35,] sound design editing and mixing by Tyler Cottman, graphics by Sam Davis and marketing support by Megan Lee and [Carly Sandsmark 00:21:42.] Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.

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