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For Him, From Him, Through Him

June 9, 2022

I graduated from dental school a couple of weeks ago. This moment was what I had viewed for a long time as the precipice, the ultimate, the “everything I was working for” for 12 straight years. I say 12 years because even in high school I was a three-sport athlete involved in multiple clubs and activities and AP classes, and I was determined to never let my grades slip. My mom tells stories of me not leaving the dinner table most nights way beyond the time everyone else went to bed. She would try to stay up with me, but eventually her eyes would grow heavy, and she knew she had to be up early the next morning. She would give me a hug and say she was proud of me, and then quietly shut her bedroom door and allow me to keep working. College was no different other than that my mom was not there to witness the countless nights of studying, writing and completing assignments. I was on my own, but I was still just as determined to succeed in every metric. While some may say this sounds like admirable dedication and hard work, what I know to be true is that the underlying motivation for me was actually fear: fear of being a failure, fear of being a disappointment, fear of my life not being worth anything if I did not achieve.

This fear led to crippling anxiety that I became a master at hiding from other people. On multiple occasions throughout high school, I turned in an exam thinking there was a chance I might not have done well on it, and I would find myself in a bathroom stall having a panic attack. At the time, I did not know it was actually panic attacks that were happening. I just knew it felt like the world was closing in around me, I could barely breathe and I didn’t know why I couldn’t stop crying. Often, I would wake up in a startle after having fallen asleep in class—not for a lack of caring, but because I had stayed up so late the night before studying. This same level of over-achievement was also present in my playing sports, especially basketball. I was the captain of the track team and the basketball team, and people did not know that I would wake up early enough in the morning to work out before school at a local gym, shower and get ready for the day, even though I also had practice that afternoon. This led to even less sleep, more falling asleep in class and, ultimately, burnout that was partially why I quit basketball after playing for one year in college.

However, no one knew the degree to which I was struggling. I don’t even think I knew how unhealthy my behavior had become and how even more unhealthy my life was. When the newspaper came out senior year announcing the valedictorians of 2014, I remember one of my guy friends turning to me in his desk and saying, “Wait… you’re smart??” He wasn’t saying that to be mean or offensive, and I didn’t take it that way. I had just become so good at playing it off and acting like I didn’t care that no one—not even my friends—expected perfect grades from me. While at the time I might have taken that as a badge of honor, what I know to be true now is how isolating and lonely that behavior was. I didn’t allow people in to walk with me through my fear, and I was never vulnerable enough to let people know I was actually struggling.

Though I was introduced to Jesus at a young age and would have identified as a Christian during this part of my life, I was not walking in the freedom and peace that comes with being a child of the King. After a difficult breakup my junior year of college, I found myself on my bedroom floor telling Jesus—out loud—that He had not been at the top of my priorities, that He hadn’t even been in the top five. However, now that something so important to me had been stripped away, it was just Him and me. He was going to be my best friend, and we were going to go on a great adventure together. Slowly, Jesus helped me start to unravel the tangled webs of anxiety-driven, fear-riddled over-achieving I had spun. He showed me all the areas that fear of failure had insidiously crept into: grades, relationships, approval, fitness, appearance, even my relationship with Him. He revealed to me that first and foremost, I have always been His beloved, and I did nothing to earn or achieve that. All I had to do was receive His love. I realized how counter-intuitive it was for me to simply receive, and I was undone. This change did not happen overnight, however. It actually took years of unraveling, unthinking, releasing and receiving before I was able to allow myself to be a vulnerable human that can rest with not being perfect. My Savior is perfect, and that is enough for me.

So where did this all leave me on May 13 as I crossed the stage to be hooded and receive my DDS degree? Holding this to be true in my heart: nothing I have “accomplished” would be possible without my beloved and best friend Jesus Christ. He carried me through. He sustained. He provided. He revealed to me when it was time to dig in and hold on, and He also revealed when it was time to trust Him and let go. My friendship with Jesus is the closest friendship I know. He was there in the bathroom stall with me. He was there every night at the dinner table. He was there on my bedroom floor. He saw it all, felt it all and cared about it all, even when I was not inviting Him into the story. I know now that nothing I am and nothing I become is from my own doing, but rather Jesus willing and working on my behalf so that I may accomplish what He has prepared in advance for me to do: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10, NIV). It is for Jesus that I will spend the rest of my life working in a way that honors Him. It is from Him that I will receive the grace to work hard and have good outcomes. And it is through Him that I will be sustained to honor my patients and provide the best possible care I can. In Jesus I am free, and “…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36, NIV).

Liz Flaherty

About Liz Flaherty

Elizabeth (Liz) Flaherty, DDS, received her undergraduate degree in Biology from Baylor University in Waco, TX, then returned to her home state of MN to attend dental school at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry where she graduated in May of 2022. She now serves soldiers and their families as a dental officer in the United States Air Force. In August 2020, she married the love of her life, Kevin, who will be alongside her in the Air Force adventure! Jesus changed her life and continues to mold and shape her into the person that he planned for her to be. She is living each day on a mission to share the hope that she has found in Him.

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