I’m not sure that anyone still reads this anymore. The old blog has suffered from its share of neglect over time, despite major upgrades over the past two years. Truth be told, I actually thought of shutting the whole thing down after a couple of incidents. Suffice it to say, my online writings have caused issues for some over the years – but that’s another story for another time.
Yet, here I am, in an age where free speech seems to be no longer en vogue, pecking away at a keyboard, sharing my unsolicited thoughts with the internet and perhaps even the metaverse before too long. Given society’s penchant for shutting down opposing points of view, it strikes me as more critical than ever that we brave few and soldier on, and share whatever strikes our fancy – no matter whom we may offend.
What caught my attention of late is the subject of worry.
For many years, worry consumed me. I think everyone worries to some extent, but my worry became paralyzing. I think this was especially common during the pandemic given some polls out gauging youth depression rates, and some of the latest estimates that we are actually closer to the beginning of the pandemic, even now, than the end.
Ancient Wisdom for Modern Problems
There’s no panacea to the problem of worry. It’s simply a reality of the human condition. In dealing with my own struggles, however, I’ve often found and drawn comfort from my faith, which has its roots in the wisdom of the ancients. The challenge, in this case, is to apply ancient wisdom to modern problems. Fortunately for me, Jesus has a lot to say about worry.
Matthew 6.25 came across my radar of late via TikTok. A fact that I think would make Jesus smile. Thirst trap, indeed. At any rate, it certainly found its way on to my desk at an appropriate time when I am very anxious (viz., worried) about a good many things in my life. Given my situation, the imperative quoted above struck me as an especially important thing to reflect on.
To add some background, the quote actually follows from the previous section where Jesus warns against efforts to serve both God and money. The point of the verses is that such a duality of service is simply not possible. Of course, that never keeps us from trying.
The question that follows logically, assuming we choose to serve God rather than money is what then? How do we live? How do we buy clothes, pay bills, buy food, save for retirement, etc. What will my kids do when I’m gone? For that matter, how long do I have left? Nothing sparks the existential dread we harbor inside quite like a pandemic where death seems to be all around. How can we live, let alone choose to serve God, without cash? The questions are unspoken at this point in the section but immediately after, Jesus gives us the lesson above. And it’s a simple lesson, elegant even: “Don’t worry about it.”
Elegant though it may be, the lesson can seem a bit quaint, and at stark odds with modernity. We worry about many things that would be inconceivable to the folks in Jesus’s day. We live lives that are much more complex and complicated than they were in the first century C.E., at least in our own estimation.
Nevertheless, it’s called ancient wisdom for a reason. The lesson is timeless. Or rather, it exists outside of time. A beacon from beyond, challenging our preconceptions of what it means to truly live.
The fact is, worry is an insidious demon. Not in the horns and fire sense, but in its subtle ability to take over our lives and destroy them, dream by dream. By contrast, the message from Jesus is intended to be one of liberation. Freedom. The antidote to worry is to not play its game.
Worry operates by placing tremendous stress upon our souls, mind, and our bodies. The stress that results is ultimately derived from fictions that we choose to believe are facts. We may grieve or regret something that has happened. We worry about what may come. Worry coerces us into believing that our worst fears are inevitabilities and this simply isn’t so.
In the end, we are only responsible for the present. That’s all we can control. This point underlies all of the wisdom and beauty that follows in the remainder of the chapter. I hope to unpack some of this in the posts that follow.
For now, the take home point is a counterintuitive one. Despite our view of life’s complexity, despite every emotion and temptation that besets us when life seems to be going awry – even so, it is still better to be a peace with our lot, rather than worry about what may come.
Jesus seems to be telling us, don’t worry because all is well.
When I left Tucson six months and one week ago (5/25/20), it never occurred to me that I would remain in Oklahoma past August. And yet, one half-year later, here I am.
In that time, I’ve lived out of a suitcase for the bulk of it. I’ve transitioned my work from a laptop to an iPad. I’ve done the entirety of my job at a small wooden desk in my childhood bedroom. I feel a bit transient but none the worse for wear. This weekend, I’ll return to Tucson to pack up my belongings and make the move to what once was home.
There’s certainly no complaint on my part. Tucson rents were going up. So were the COVID-19 cases. With no end in sight to the pandemic, my apartment effectively became an expensive storage unit. My employer granted a provisional approval to work remotely, at least for the duration of the pandemic. Moving seems prudent. I leave for Arizona on Saturday to begin packing with the move to Oklahoma to follow.
No Place Like Home?
Aside from the move itself, I can’t say that I really know what the next chapter will hold – except that for the next several months it will surely be lived here. Despite my penchant for planning, I’m not even sure that having a plan matters very much anymore. If I’ve learned anything from this year, it’s that plans can be upended as quickly as they can be made. It’s fair to say that 2020 brought with it unexpected change for nearly everyone. We adapt when we can. We muddle along when we can’t. We humans are nothing if not resilient.
Perhaps I’m getting sentimental in my old age, but I can’t help thinking about how odd it is to move during the holidays. Normally, Christmas is the time to stay grounded, to enjoy time with family, and even to reminisce about Christmases long past – those halcyon memories that get etched in the mind and seem more vibrant somehow than the memories we are in the midst of making.
When considering the past, it’s always tempting to believe that it was brighter than it actually was. I think part of this temptation stems from the fact that there are realities about the present that we wish were different. For my part, with the move looming, I’m forced to reconsider what home is. When I think of past Christmases, I tend to think about the family home place. My Grandpa in his recliner. An ancient music box blaring Christmas carols while the tree lights blink in merry colors of the season.
But this is almost literally looking at home through rose-colored lenses. Yule-colored lenses might be more appropriate. The fact is, the memory above is long gone, and it does no one any good to live in the past. The present reality is that, until this extended stay, I haven’t lived in Oklahoma in roughly twenty years. True, I’ve gotten reacquainted with the people in our small town, and there’s no question that I have enjoyed being with my family. But I do wonder if I can fairly say that this is still my home.
I suppose I won’t really know the answer to this question until some time has passed. Predicting the future is a fools errand. And even while the mind is hardwired to predict the future, actually living in so aware a manner proves to be much more difficult. When 2020 began, I had wished a new decade would usher in positive changes and the hope for a better year than the personal hell that was 2019. For many, I think 2020 was probably worse than any single year in the past ten. The mind may try to predict what will happen in a given situation and respond accordingly, but it’s exactly the inability to predict (or plan) that causes anguish for so many. To state matters briefly, even the best plans can fall apart.
So, maybe a plan isn’t the way to go for this next chapter of life. For all I know, the pandemic could end this spring and I may be back in Tucson just in time for school to start in August. Planning also has a limiting factor: we tend to ignore other possibilities when we are focused on a particular course of action. I don’t think this is intentional. It’s just a reality that we can only entertain so many ideas and outcomes at once. The lesson I take from this season of life is that our ability to tangle with uncertainty is the key to finding contentment.
In truth, there never are any certainties. Never were. We just live with a set of assumptions and hope for the best.
I don’t write with much consistency these days. I thought that the pandemic and working from home would see an increase in posts and a whole series unfold on the different tech dilemmas that I find myself in.
But the truth is my heart just hasn’t been in it.
When I watch the news or read the headlines trying to drum up a creative spark that might lead to a post, I find that writing anything political or satirical would be mundane compared to reality.
Take the recent Trump v. Biden debate for example. The debate was an absolute brawl put on by two men who desperately want to be the President of the United States (or acting President in the case of Biden). Both sides came out swinging, and caught the usually nonplused moderator Chris Wallace completely off guard. One candidate called the other a clown. The other retorted back by calling him stupid, and our moderator was left in the unenviable role of a Presidential Debate Schoolmarm who had clearly lost her class.
If there’s one thing we’ve managed to do over the past year it’s figure out ways to clobber each other. I say this metaphorically with respect to politics, but given the riots-cum-peaceful protests, I have to say this literally as well. We are a Nation so divided that even our collective response to the pandemic has been politicized. Mask wears vs. the anti-mask wearers, to say nothing of the pending Supreme Court nomination, the looming election, the economic downturn that has beset so many, and those we’ve lost to this wretched virus.
It’s strange but at a time when thoughts are plentiful, I’ve found it plenty difficult to focus on the tasks at hand. Sharing anything remotely thoughtful with the blogosphere has been low on the priority list – somewhere on the level of responding to emails, unfortunately. (Is the blogosphere even a thing anymore?)
A personal failure of words strikes me as especially odd given that we are living in a truly historic time. And when one lives through history it would seem that there’s something significant to talk about. To wit, I think the last ‘certifiable’ pandemic was the Spanish Flu in the 1920s. However, it seems there’s some debate about this point as some quarters only call it a mere epidemic rather than a pandemic. Roaring twenties, indeed. Given that very few if any people are alive who survived the pandemic of the 1920s, it’s fair to say that we are living through a historic moment. And yet words have been few and far between.
I think the difficulty stems from the fact that living through a pandemic is rather boring.
Movie theaters are closed. Restaurants and bars have lost their appeal. Amusement parks are no longer amusing. Halloween has been canceled. Travel abroad is severely restricted. Travel at home is undesirable. And, to state an obvious (albeit unpopular) opinion, wearing a mask is tedious. Rather than breathe my own breath, like billions of people around the world, I’ve simply opted to stay home.
In truth, it hasn’t been all bad for me. Home in my case, is back in Oklahoma. At present, I’m writing from the comfy environs of my childhood room, sleeping on an extra-long twin bed with a small writing desk allocated for me to do my work. It’s a humbling thing to be nearly 40 (gasp) and living at home with my parents.
The saving grace of my situation is that it’s not for unfortunate circumstances that I am here. My apartment in Tucson is happily unoccupied with all of my belongings just as I left them in late May. I remain gainfully employed at the University of Arizona. And my health is as good as it ever has been – though I certainly need to lose a few COVID pounds at some point. My excuse is that the gyms are closed. That I would not have gone to one anyway is a moot point.
So, despite it all, those I care about are safe and healthy. I have a job. My needs are met. Many have it far worse. I’m a fortunate person though I don’t deserve it. I just hope this thing turns around for us all very soon.
The video below was a live-streamed performance given today at the Duomo di Milano by Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli. The performance was broadcast via YouTube as a message from the singer to the world, reminding us that Easter is a celebration of “the trust in a life that triumphs.” It’s one of the most beautiful and haunting renditions of Amazing Grace that I’ve ever heard.
Toward the end of the performance, there are shots from the stilled cities of Milan, Paris, London, and New York. The images create a stark contrast between Bocelli’s message of hope and the dark hour besetting our world.
I found the dichotomy to be exceptionally appropriate on this Easter Sunday. The message of Easter from the Bible is not that dark times will not come. This was, after all, the lesson of Good Friday. The death of Jesus on that day had to have seemed rather dark, indeed. Today, the empty streets across our lands bespeak a similarly dark time for us.
And yet, the message of Easter morning is that we still have hope. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope that life will triumph. And to Christians, hope that death is conquered because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
Without the cross (the bad times) there could be no resurrection (the hope for tomorrow).
In the days before the global pandemic (four weeks ago), I took a week to work remotely and left town. I didn’t realize at the time what a luxury getting on a plane would be. I had no idea of the world chaos that would follow. I just knew I needed to get away, and I’m glad I did.
Like millions of others, I’ve struggled off and on over the years with the dual beast of anxiety and depression. One easily feeds into the other. Anxiety about life (real or perceived) has often led to a downward spiral into depression. Similarly, feeling down and depressed has made me anxious about my mental health, and left me wondering whether I would ever feel back to my “old” self again. The feedback loop can be pure hell.
I can’t say that I’ve managed this very well in the past. My m.o. has been to double-down on new medicines, carry on with whatever projects I have, and basically ignore how I feel. My thought was that if I had no physical ailments or illnesses, then whatever emotions were bothering me were simply something in my mind that I could control. This had been my mindset for a number of years. The latest incarnation of the mindset included my separation and ultimate divorce in 2016; being separated from my son and family (all of whom live in other states); and most recently the death of my Grandfather this past August.
What I didn’t realize is that one can only keep the emotions and feelings contained for so long.
It’s fair to say that I hit a wall in mid to late February. The jig was up. Grief unexpectedly snuck up on me after a busy month of work projects. I tried to force myself to work more. I took time to process less. I wasn’t terribly productive and this caused me alarm. I tried new medications (as prescribed by a doctor) that affected me in odd ways. I was sent reeling and didn’t know what to do. Panic attacks were common. I dreaded trying to sleep at night. No matter what I did, my mind simply would not shut off. And more than anything, I felt utterly alone.
In brief, I was scared. I hadn’t reached this point before, so my response was atypical: I asked for help. I contacted my doctor. I contacted my parents and family. I contacted friends. I even contacted my superiors at the office. I requested a week to adjust to new medications while working remotely. I could work but I was in no shape for meetings, virtual or other. My request was granted in short order. I left town for a week at the invitation of amazingly generous friends to work remotely. I took a couple of days off in between to boot. During the days off, my friends and I explored the Blue Ridge Mountains along the Virginia and North Carolina border. I ate deep-fried southern food. I even managed a trip to visit the hometown of a personal hero – a place I had always wanted to visit – the hometown of Andy Griffith, in Mount Airy, NC. At first, I felt so incredibly guilty. Guilt born from a failure to power through. A guilt born of perceived weakness. An inability to man up.
And then I got over it.
The truth is, there was nothing that couldn’t wait. There were no emergencies that I couldn’t handle at a distance. Whether I was in Tucson, my home in Walters, or points beyond, the essentials got done, and I felt a whole lot better. It wasn’t a silver bullet. I still had/have a lot of things to work through. But ignoring them was never a sustainable solution. I just didn’t realize how precarious an alternative it had been. Through the process, I inadvertently followed two important, widely-recommended self-care tips without even realizing what I was doing.
Psychology Today suggests twelve tips for exercising better self-care. Number six and number twelve are most relevant here:
Number 6: Take a self-care trip.
Number 12: Schedule your self-care time, and guard that time with everything you have.
It’s old hat to most, but it’s a simple fact that we all need rest from time to time. There is no weakness involved. I desperately needed some time away to recharge. To heal. To allow my body to adjust to the new meds. I needed to be surrounded by people who cared in new environs. Functionally, it was a very selfish thing to do. But if there’s a lesson in the whole ordeal, it’s that being selfish to tend to my emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing is an okay thing to do.
TAKING A TRIP
The self-care trip wasn’t planned. I booked the ticket the day before I left. Some incredibly gracious friends knew how I was feeling and invited me to come to their home to convalesce for a week. The trip was impromptu but essential.
I had been worried about my job and whether it was acceptable to get away for that period of time. But, in the end, my superiors were all incredibly understanding and sympathetic, if not empathetic. I did not consider the point, but nearly everyone has been in need of self care at one time or another. What can seem like an isolating experience is actually quite common. Where I was afraid to reach out and worried about my job performance, my colleagues were concerned about my wellbeing.
I realize that not every job will be as forgiving in taking time away as quickly as mine was. But I think that many will be surprised at how understanding an employer can be. For those who are fortunate, like me, to have understanding colleagues, it’s a good reminder to be there for others down the road. #PayItForward.
GUARDING YOUR TIME
A second lesson I’ve learned from my experience in late February is how important it is to “guard” the time that I need for to take care of myself.
The critical mistake that I made leading up to my very dark time was in not listening to the way that I felt. I tried to force myself to carry on with business as usual despite the fact that the business of my life was far from usual. I let work and other things become my distractions from how I was feeling. I devoted my time to these rather than guard or allocate the time that I needed to take care of myself.
In retrospect, it seems obvious how wrong this was. At the time, it seemed like self preservation. My pride kept me from seeking help and reaching out for years. It became a habit that I didn’t realize I had developed. While this may make me sound too much like a hippy (I promise I’m not), it’s pretty clear that my life was out of balance.
The point of guarding time is not to dwell on a problem indefinitely. It’s not even about coming to any definitive solutions. I didn’t have any lightbulb moments on my trip for example. To me, the purpose of guarding one’s time is to allow the soul the time it needs to rest. The decision to allocate time from hectic schedules must be deliberate. It must then be guarded for the sacred mandate that it is.
If I can be so bold as to offer a few takeaways from my experience, I think the following points sum up matters nicely. Given where I’ve been, I hope that some of these will be helpful to you, if you find yourself in a similar fix.
1. There’s no weakness in seeking help. My pride kept me from seeking help for several years all because I thought that it would demonstrate weakness to not “have it all together.” But having it “all together” is a myth. No one has it all together all of the time. If I had sought help and addressed how I felt head on, I could have saved myself from literally years of pain.
2. You’re not alone. This is a cliché. I don’t love that I have written it. It’s also true. The mountains of anxiety and depression that I perceived in my mind seemed like sui generis demons that I had created and that only I could slay. I did not think that anyone would understand what I had been through and that I would be judged all the more for not handling things on my own. This too is a myth and the reality is quite the opposite. The human experience is far more similar than it is different. As Solomon said, there’s nothing new under the sun. When I cracked the curtain and let a bit of light from others shine in, I realized that my situation was not unique and that a bit of help from others was not only welcomed but also immensely helpful.
3. Be your own advocate. Of all the lessons, this was by far the most difficult for me to learn. I did not want to admit that I needed help because I thought it projected weakness. I did not want to allow others into my life because I didn’t think they would understand, and that if they did understand, then they would judge me for being weak (how’s that for cyclic thinking). So, being my own advocate and verbalizing what I needed was an extremely difficult challenge. But it had to be done.
When I hit the wall in February, I finally came to a point of realizing that I had done too good a job putting up my facade of invincibility and isolating myself from others. No one asked how I was doing because I always gave the same talking points, deflecting the conversation away, answering the question without answering it: “I’m fine, thanks. How about you? How is x going?” Anything to avoid actually giving an honest answer. I realized that the only way I could get the help I needed was to be honest with myself and to advocate for my own wellbeing. Once I had done this, it seemed so easy and simple.
I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I hadn’t done it many years before.