Monday, December 3, 2018

A Beginner's Guide to Orienteering in an Existential Crisis

I don't like to brag, but it's Internet in 2018 so I guess I will: Besides being left-handed and knowing a shocking amount about Hallmark movies, one of my standout qualities is the ability to jump from 75 to Brooding in less than a second.  I have decades of experience in brooding, and I've also brooded in over a dozen countries spanning three continents. Many amateurs think they need to sit in the dark and listen to The Smiths while clutching a highball glass like a talisman, but that's rookie stuff. Elite brooders like me can brood in broad daylight with no chemical enhancement needed.
Actual footage of a co-worker's note on my door, circa 2015.

I type all that knowing from experience that depression and melancholy are difficult things to experience, especially around the holidays. While I love pretty much everything about Christmas, the season can bring into relief difficult things that sometimes we'd rather not think about - missing loved ones, unrealized expectations, and the like. But it's not just the holidays. Hard times can hit at any time. Sometimes you get down and you don't even know why. There's no reason that you can find, but there you are, in the wasteland. Again.

If you're depressed or walking through a rough patch, the main thing I want you to know is that you don't have to go through it alone. As a fellow ranger of the wasteland, I'll be honored to walk alongside you. We'll figure it out.

If you aren't ready to talk (or don't want to walk with me), I've gathered notes on some helpful landmarks to help you get to friendlier terrain.

ESTABLISH A ROUTINE. Sleep seven to eight hours each night. Exercise daily. Even short walks at lunch and dinnertime are a huge help, especially if you get around some greenery. Eat real food. To quote Make Time, we're not just minds speeding around on Segways. Our bodies influences our minds and our minds influence our bodies. If you can take care of your whole self, it'll help. At the least, it will help you not make things worse, if that makes sense.

GATHER YOUR CREW. Like the Step Up franchise taught us, you need your whole dance crew to succeed. You don't even have to give an inspiring speech to sick beats to get them to rally. Your friends and loved ones care about you and really don't mind helping you out. Let them know what's going on so that it's out in the open. Darkness loses power over you that way. You might expand your crew to include counselors, yogis, religious leaders, fitness coaches, authors, and whatever else you need.

TALK TO GOD. The Bible is full of faithful yet very confused believers. They don't understand what God is doing (or not doing), and what a measly human is supposed to do in a giant, unknowable world. That's fine! Ask God for help in understanding, for the will to want to understand, for courage. Just ask all the questions you have. There's a pretty good chance all of your questions won't get answered, or at least not in the way you want. But, as Mick Jagger taught us, if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need. Even if what you need is just to clear the air with your maker.

CHECK YOURSELF. An uncomfortable lesson I've learned is that sometimes I exacerbate my issues. In the past I've done this through negative thought patterns, self-medicating with alcohol and comfort food, and pushing people away. Try and cultivate your mental and spiritual garden so that it's more likely you'll be well instead of unwell. Routine really helps with this.

HAVE FUN. Even in hard times it's possible to enjoy yourself. Laugh at silly movies and eat amazing food. Put on your cool clothes and go out with friends. Last year I was listening to a sheriff talk about working an especially rough case and he said, "Cry when things are sad and laugh when things are funny, or else you won't make it in this line of work." I think that's true in life. It doesn't mean you are pretending that everything is fine. It means you are living, engaging with the world. If you're the rebellious type, it means you are defying entropy and waving your beautiful bright freak flag in a gray country. That's cool.

I hope these ideas are useful for you. Take heart!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Silence & Speech

I don't talk much.

There are plenty of reasons why.

SILENCE

First, the Bible has so many verses about watching your mouth that it's hard to ignore. Here are some choice examples:
  • "As you enter the house of God, keep your ears open and your mouth shut. It is evil to make mindless offerings to God." - Ecclesiastes 5:1
  • "If you claim to be religious but don't control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless." - James 1:26
  • "Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut, and you will stay out of trouble." - Proverbs 21:23
  • "You must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you." - Matthew 12:36-37
  • "A truly wise person uses few words; a person with understanding is even-tempered. Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent." - Proverbs 17:27-28
Experience, unfortunately, was another teacher. I learned the hard way that talking too much means being cruel, thoughtless, or just failing to convey what I really mean. Have you ever edited or deleted a social media comment? Have you ever been frustrated after a conversation because you couldn't move the oomph of what you wanted to say from yourself to someone else? They couldn't grok what you meant? It's a frustrating feeling because you aren't fully known and can't fully know others.

The last reason I don't talk much is because of a college class. At ACU, I took a course called Spiritual Pilgrims. The class was about traditional religious ascetic practices that may have been more en vogue in ancient Egyptian deserts or medieval monasteries than in the 21st century. These practices include silence, solitude, meditation, fasting, and contemplative prayer. These practices are, at least in part, about cutting through the nonsense we surround ourselves with in order to get to the truth. By truth, I mean who we really are, who God really is, what our real purpose is. Real stuff.

One of the books we read in the Spiritual Pilgrims class was Henri Nouwen's The Way of the Heart. That book is a wonderful introduction to silence, solitude, and prayer. The book is less than 100 pages, but it's full of nourishment and wisdom. I learned from that book that silence and solitude aren't the absence of something, but instead are the fullness of something. Nouwen says "words are meant to disclose the mystery of the silence from which they came."

Another book that's recently come across my desk is Martin Laird's Into the Silent Land. Laird explains that silence, full silence, is crucial for us to begin to realize the depth and profundity of our connection with God. He says "[u]nion with God is not something that needs to be acquired but realized." When we are one, talking isn't necessary. We fully know the other, so nothing needs to be said. Doesn't that sound great? Someone fully knowing you, and fully being known to you? What peace and comfort.

I don't talk much because there are lots of reasons to be silent. One of the main ones is that you don't come off like a jackass, even if you are a jackass! Also, enjoying the fullness of silence is a good thing.

At the same time, I'm trying to talk more. Here's why:

SPEECH

Silence is good, and it's not the only good. As a disciple of Jesus, my two jobs here on Earth and to love God and love people. So, if I'm serious about my faith, service is also good. What I'm learning now is that while our silence is an end, it's also for something. We carry the silence, carry the fire, and engage with the outside world. Silence allows us to serve. If we don't speak up, we miss those opportunities.

Nouwen puts it this way: "A word that bears fruit is a word that emerges from the silence and returns to it. It is a word that reminds us of the silence from which it comes and leads us back to that silence."

The Bible says this about our words:
  • "Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone."- Colossians 4:6
  • "Don't use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them." - Ephesians 4:29
  • "Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing." - Proverbs 12:18
  • "Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit." - Proverbs 15:1
  • "Kind words are like honey - sweet to the soul and healthy for the body." - Proverbs 16:23-24
How do you balance the wisdom of being quiet with the opportunity to serve? How do you know when to speak? Here's what I've come up with as times when it's necessary to speak:

  1. When it helps or affirms another.
  2. When you need help.
  3. When peace requires it.

Help for another: It's clear from the Scripture and theology above that we can be nourishing and heartening to others. We should do that. If we do, we're being good to one another and fulfilling our purpose. If we have the ability to and we choose not to, we're squandering our lives and also preventing others from flourishing. Affirming others when they've done or said something hard is a great way to offer help.

Help for self: Sometimes people need help but won't ask for help. Maybe this is pride, but I think a lot of times it's thinking that people think they're just not worth helping. That's just not accurate. God made you and loves you. You're worthy. You matter to God and to me, and probably lots of other people. Take care of yourself. Realize also that it's not just you that you're helping. In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson writes: "[Y]ou do not belong to yourself. You are not simply your own possession to torture and mistreat. This is partly because your Being is inexorably tied up with that of others, and your mistreatment of yourself can have catastrophic consequences for others." If you need help, ask for help. We're all better off for it!

For peace: We are a verbose culture. We're literally surrounded by audio and visual speech.  Magazines, books, podcasts, radio, Hulu, Netflix, yada yada. We carry the internet and scroll through it all day long. We bicker and snipe at one another on social media and we pick red team or blue team, yada yada. What we don't do all the time is think about the end goal. Are we helping one another by what we say? Why are we contributing to the noise that distracts from silence? A lot of times, the answer is that we aren't helping. Are we adding anything meaningful? A lot of times, the answer is no.

Sometimes, though, we do have to speak up.

If a situation or a relationship is broken and it's not being addressed, peace is broken. We're all worse off. We should speak up and try to help heal what's wounded. This can be uncomfortable and even dangerous. It's also good, so we should do it.


FINDING BALANCE

Silence is good. Speaking in service is good. How do you find the balance so that you can function in society? We don't want to be hermits or become detached. A couple of observations:

First, if you've mostly stopped saying awful stuff and are encouraging and helpful to others, I think people will probably like you and you'll feel good about yourself. That will help you not feel like a weirdo.

Second, on top of that, keep in mind the point isn't being disengaged, but appropriately engaged. We do not add to the noise; we do speak truth and peace into the world. We're doing our best to help.

Here's a quick test from the Spiritual Pilgrims class:

Before you say anything, ask whether it's good and necessary.

That should help you figure out whether to yell at the drive-through employee, make that comment on Facebook, or speak up when no one else will.

TL;DR

  • Shutting up is good.
  • Speaking up is also good. 
  • Help, get help, and heal.
  • "Is my speech nourishing and necessary?"



Monday, July 23, 2018

Life in Small Bites


Sam and I recently went to this local bakery called Paige’s Bakehouse. The thing they’re most known for is what I thought were called Petite Fours, but are actually petit fours (small oven). They’re basically mini, ornately decorated little cakes or sweets. Think about if you shrink rayed a full-size cake. It’s that.

That got me thinking about how we view life. I mentioned earlier that instead of seeing life as narrative, A to B to C to Z thing as I had been, I was now viewing it more experientially. More as sensations and still frames and feels than a chronological story.

The petit four dessert from Paige’s got me to this area of thinking about life in small bites, and how the small bite idea is so much healthier than where I’ve been for decades.

I’ve always been a big picture guy. I like questions. Why is all this happening? What’s the point? What’s my role?

By brooding on these big questions, I was trying to understand and see the whole giant cake. I was was also trying to eat the whole cake, both metaphorically and literally. 

There was this kind of desperation to do and taste and see and accomplish. Maybe part of it is fearing dying early and missing out. But most of it, for me, is fear of failing in my duties, whatever they were. The obligations were important, but I wanted to be seen as was worthy.

And so I was just planting my face in the middle of the cake like a one year old and a party and going to town. Bad way to live. Stress, sickness to due to stress, missing days because I was focused on weeks. Always on the next one. Never a chance to enjoy what I have.

But now I see that attacking life the way I was isn’t exactly what God has in mind for us as human beings. Here are some reasons why:

  • Nature. We have seasons and cycles in nature. 
  • Sabbath. God builds in to his creation story a day of rest, and he commands rest (Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy).
  • Existential Bible Talk. Ecclesiastes 3 and hippie 1960s songs both acknowledge that there's a season for everything.
  • Manna. In the Old Testament, God supplied daily food for his people. It only lasted the day - it couldn't be gathered for longer (Exodus)
  • Jesus. In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus instructs us to ask for "our daily bread", not "full knowledge of the success of our five-year plan." In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes very clear to focus on the day. Matthew 6 is about focusing on the present:
That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?

And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.

So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
So now I'm trying small bites.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Experiential Living + Best Books of 2018 (So Far)

For pretty much all of my life, I’ve been looking at my life as getting from Point A to Point B to Point yada yada, with the idea that it all adds up to one day going to heaven. Point Z, I guess, or Point Upper Case A. Or Point Exclamation Point.


After reading books by Murakami, watching shows like Legion, or the movie Last Days, something shifted. I started seeing life more like impressions and moods and experiences instead of A to B to C. It’s been an interesting way to live, this...I don’t know, artistic way more than a narrative way. It’s kind of a weird feeling as a writer, at least for my kind of writing, to move towards mood instead of plot, but I like it. I don't know if it's better (or worse). I think it's just different and also equally valid. One big benefit I've noticed is that experiences with people are more meaningful because I'm not in a rush to do anything.

Have you ever thought about that? How do you think of your life? Is it more doing things on this narrative, storyline arc, or is it something else?

Here are my favorite books so far in 2018:
  1. Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
  2. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
  3. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  4. Hard-Boiled Wonderland & the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
  5. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
  6. Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe by Yumi Sakugawa
  7. A Climate for Change by Katharine Hayhoe
  8. Stiff by Mary Roach
  9. Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han
  10. SuperSons comic by Peter J. Tomasi

Honorable Mention:

The Injustice comic series by Tom Taylor
The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron



Friday, June 8, 2018

Prayer of Examen

Given my recent bounty of leisure time, I've taken up praying more. I realize how sad it is that I "took it up". Shouldn't it be like breathing or eating? But, with help from the Echo app and this discipline of examen, my life prayer life (well, all my life) has improved. What is examen? As you can guess from the word itself, it's the practice of looking at your life. You don't just look yourself, and you don't just look at yourself. You look with the Holy Spirit at your day to figure out where God was (hint:everywhere), how you did, and how you can be better tomorrow. This six minute video can get you going:


I also recommend checking out this website for more resources.

The biggest thing that's changed for me is I'm more mindful of my behavior, before, during, and after it happens. I'm also more grateful for all of the good things that happen. Highly recommend!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Be a Lake

On a whim, I recently picked up Yumi Sakugawa's gem of a graphic novel called Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe. In it, Sakugawa provides readers with nine meditative exercises. She's whimsically illustrated each idea and exercise in black and white.

My favorite little exercise asks readers to not only pay attention to the universe around us, but also the universe within us. We're complicated people, and marvelously made (Psalm 139). It's good for us to examine our inner world and figure out what we can learn. Sakugawa asks the readers to do it by acting as if our inner world is its own real planet on which we're traveling. What can you learn from snowy mountain tops, or from cavernous depths? What's that inner world saying?

I honestly didn't know how to approach this little exercise. I just tried my hardest to think on it, but I fell asleep. However, as I was going about the next day, I was hit with a complete mental image of a dark, calm lake surrounded by greenery and a little mountain. I was also hit with this realization:

A lake just exists. Just by being there, it provides fun, restoration, inspiration, livelihood, sustenance, and mystery. All it has to do is be what God made it, and all of that happens. Be a lake.

What an awesome thought! That reminded me of this:

Why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.  And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith? 
So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.  (Matthew 6:28-33, NLT)

Monday, January 22, 2018

Phrase of 2018: Good for Good!

Historically, I have been awful at New Year's Resolutions. Before the spring season is over, I often forget that I even made a resolution. Resolutions are out as a tool for me. But, I still want to be a better person by the end of the year. How do I get to there from here?

This year I'm trying out a phrase instead of a resolution. The phrase de l'annĂ©e is Good for Good! It's kind of vague, yes, but that's because I had to fit a lot of idea into three words. The gist is this: Taking care of my self is important because it better enables me to serve and love others. Physically, I need to take care of my body through rest, nutrition, and exercise. Spiritually and mentally, I need to spend time God with through constant prayer, Scripture, and reflection. The end goal isn't self-actualization, though that's a bonus of being a Jesus-lovin-son-of-a-gun. The actual goal isn't me; the actual goal is to be more ready and fully capable of participating in God's plan. The Kingdom of God. The coolest thing.

This Good for Good phrase came to me in an embarrassing way. There have been multiple times in the last few months in which my kids wanted to play with me. But, I couldn't physically play because I wasn't taking care of myself. I couldn't get down on the ground or swing from the playground equipment because I physically felt too nauseated from my diet, or just too tired. I'm only my 30s. What a wakeup call. It got me thinking about other areas of my life in which I'm not giving my best because I can't. It's disappointing to realize a lot of people aren't getting the best version of me.

That's difference between Good for Good and resolutions I've always failed at, like wearing certain jeans or a certain jacket that used to fit in 2005. There is a more explicit purpose that I care deeply about. I'm trying to keep the phrase at the back of my mind when I make decisions. So far I've had mixed results, but I'm glad the thought it always there.

A few years ago our friend Jen gave Sam and I a copy of Marge Piercy's poem "To Be of Use" as a present. It was meaningful gift, and I've always kept it close. It says better than I could what I'm striving for. Here's a chunk:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
Help me figure out how to be of use! What tips do you have?