Existential Angst — 55 and Still Not “Normal”?

“Let’s face it. You’re not exactly normal…” Vicki Vale …. “It’s not exactly a normal world, is it?…” Bruce Wayne/Batman

” Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole life believing it is stupid”. — attributed to Albert Einstein.

I have been preparing mentally to write a blog about what it was like to be 55 for awhile now, but as I thought about it, as I measured my life, combined with some other things, I became depressed, and burnt out and angry for reasons that seemed stupid. This morning, after a lengthy vacation and in conversation with my younger daughter, I have finally figured our what was going on. Mentally, I had brought a knife to a gun fight and couldn’t figure out why I lost all the time.

It started like this: As I watched Rev. Jeff Brown’s work and the depth of it, I felt like I wasn’t doing my best work, somehow. I was jealous — not of Jeff or his job — but of something else. He had made something of himself and I… hadn’t? My friend Todd Farnsworth, a pastor nearby, is incredibly successful, it seems to me, but not necessarily in “bringing thousands to Christ” or “making a bazillion dollars”, but in something else that I was supposed to be. I wasn’t sure what that was, but … I wasn’t it, or hadn’t become it… whatever it was.

As one who suffers with depression, I knew that it made no rational sense. I was successful at the things I wanted to be. I have a thriving therapy practice a good, long marriage and two incredible children who seem to prove I know something about parenting. People say I write well. I certainly write a lot. By any measure that I could come up with, I was successful. Work was hard, but rationally,  I was “successful”.

I began to think about “making a difference in the world” and whether I had done that, and I thought about my friend Pat Spear who had urged me not to go into psychology because I could on;y change one life at a time, and that mental health was directly related to the conditions people live in. I could help more people by being a leader of people than I could by myself. I haven’t actually led anybody in years. I had causes that were dear to me, but couldn’t get followers for the life of me. I wasn’t in a parish. Did I now want to go back into the parish? Maybe, just to see what it was like. I have been blessed suddenly with parish preaching and ministry duties for the entire summer, so there was something there, but I still felt like I had done absolutely nothing with my life. I had lots and lots of friends, people who treasured me, but I still was a failure? To whom, you might ask? The answer was me.

Burnout came on, and I needed rest. 12 days of time with no real schedule, no burning questions, no saving people’s lives or sanity, just time with my family made a major change within me. Still, I wasn’t settled. “I mustn’t be asking the right question”, I thought. God was still talking to me, so it wasn’t that… What?

Last night, as we were nearing home, my daughter got into a discussion with the family about what she was going to wear to school the first day of freshman year. People suggested to her that, though she was an incredible person, she should dress “normally” to fit in, rather than as the “nerd” or “geek” or “fan girl of Harry Potter” that she sees herself as — at least for a day. Given that teenagers “try on” identities as part of their development, it didn’t bother me, but neither my wife nor I wanted her to have problems with her peers. Been there. Done that.

But that’s not what my daughter was saying. She didn’t care if she fit in. She didn’t care if she wasn’t popular, She didn’t care if she was “normal”. She didn’t want people to think she was normal. She was answering a different question than we were asking. This morning, it hit me that that was the issue. I was trying to be “normal” when I wasn’t. I didn’t used to care about being normal, or what other people thought about me, like my daughter. Then I did. Now, all these years later, I find that that’s not enough for me.

As far as I can tell, a “normal” person couldn’t hear what I hear every day in the office and survive. A normal person shouldn’t have to. Jeff’s work that impressed me wasn’t “normal” parish work. Todd’s parish work — joyous and loving and wonderful — wasn’t “normal”, if by that you mean “average”. It was better than that. The work I myself did in Bridgeport with the Black community wasn’t considered “normal” by anyone, including me. It was faithful, though. Most people agreed on that.

There were people who told me then that I shouldn’t do it — that it wasn’t proper — because it wasn’t my work, and that I would undercut the community’s sense of itself. Because I didn’t care what other people thought of me, and because I knew my motives, I did it anyway. Because I did, I have been blessed with friendships beyond my wildest imagination (and I don’t think I’ve undercut anyone — if I have, let me know, please). I’m not sure, but I don’t think I did “normal” youth work, simply because I did youth work. When my seminary colleagues found it beneath them, I found it thrilling. They went on to great careers, doing great things in churches, I’m sure.

What my daughter doesn’t get, and I didn’t for a long while, is that there’s nothing wrong with being “average” or “normal”. It works for most people. Statistically, that’s why it’s “normal” or average. Gravity applies to all of us. There are only 24 hours in a day for all of us. We all make mistakes, most of them minor.  Normal life works for most people. Those parts work for everyone. What actually is, in the present, works for all of us best if we don’t fight it.

But if you want better, if you want the future to have new things, if you see things that others don’t even see as a possibility, if you can’t do anything else but be creative, then “normal” is not going to work for you.  If you need things to be better than they are, for whatever reasons, then normal’s not going to do it.  If life has made you “odd”, then  some of normal is going to be helpful, but worrying about if your clothes match or if you’re allowed to care for someone seems like a colossal waste of time.

I have confused helpful “reality’ with “the real world”/”the way it’s supposed to be” for years, and I have had “help” getting into all of those boxes — the litmus tests, the advertisements, the shame, the “standards”, the books of etiquette and politeness, “the way things have always been” are presented every day by the world. For the times I have chosen to get into them, or agreed to go into them, I have slowly diminished my soul, diminished myself. If my life were average, that might be enough. If I wanted my life to be average, that might be enough. I actually believe God calls most of us to be unworried, okay with “normal”, and happy.  God called others of us to be creative, hopeful, joyous, silly, frivolous, experimental and I’m okay with that. If you’re not, I’m also okay with that. But know that it doesn’t work for me — and it hurts my soul when you try.

Peace,

John

Advertisements

I Told You So…

(I’m on vacation and was taking a break from blogging unless something big happened. Something big happened).

“Are you ******** kidding me?” That seems to be the response on Facebook of the most peaceful, loving White people I know to an event that apparently happened yesterday in Charleston, S.C. where nine people are dead at a typically-Black AME Zion church. My Black friends haven’t posted yet, so I can’t tell you what they are thinking and wouldn’t presume to try. Are they afraid? Indignant? Angry? Hopeless? Some combination? We should all find out, because, on a day like this, our brothers and sisters in humanity are suffering simply because of the color of their skin and we have not listened to them about this for quite some time in this, the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”

They have said, “We’re being persecuted” and we said they were criminals. They said “It feels like genocide” when the CIA seem to drop Crack Cocaine into Los Angeles to fund the contras or when powdered cocaine became far less punished than rock cocaine. We said, “How could you think that”? They said, “Our new Black president seems to be enduring much more than his fair share of criticism”. We said, “But we elected a Black President. How could there be racism in America?” They said, “police are killing us”. We said “no they’re not”.

Time after time, we have denied that our America could still think this way and act this way … and hate this way. But we do. Hatred about race has now grown back to days before the Civil Rights Act and we didn’t care, couldn’t believe it, had a whole network devoted to racial intolerance scream it at us for eight years and somehow believed we were above its influence.

My best guess is that this has been going on long before President Obama got elected, but because we elected him, we can now see it. Representative democracy happens when more people are represented. As more women become elected, I suspect we will confront our national sexism as well.

This blog has said so repeatedly, and I have heard back repeatedly that I’m making this up or just don’t understand. As Jeff Goldblum said in Juraissic Park, “I hate being right all the time”. I do hate being right — not because anything about me — not because I want to prove others wrong or promote myself. I hate that it’s real, too. I hate seeing what I’m seeing. I hate my friends being hurt. I hate that the Body of Christ is being hurt. I hate that America is hurting itself because somehow we got to thinking it’s “Us” vs. “Them”. It’s not. It’s “Us vs. Us”.

So all those hippie Christian tropes that we learned all those years ago still apply. The whole world is our brothers and our sisters. This whole think lies within our hearts and our minds long before it comes out in action. We need to look at ourselves and ask for forgiveness. Only love can conquer hate. Everyone has dignity and is due respect simply because they are human and created in the image of God. We need to learn to love. We need to express that love for all of our sisters and brothers ….

If we don’t want to be nauseous every night watching the news, if we don’t want the promise of America to slip away, if we don’t want to attend more and more funerals, we better start loving and stop hating. And we better do it now, in the name of all that is holy — within us and in the universe.

Peace,

John

Uni-tasking

A few confessions: I love the Candy Crush Soda game and I apparently have ADHD.  In addition to that my job requires a LOT of mental activity and decisions: “What’s the best way to say this? What’s the best way to point this out? Is it better to listen now or interrupt? ” and so on. The point of all of this? My brain is tired more often than not. On balance, though, I also love my wife and my kids, I love God and justice, and I love music and I love TV. I like time in blocks and hanging out. I love sleep.

By now, you’ve noticed that there are only 24 hours in a day and my stuff won’t fit. So what do I do? I try to do more things at once. And to prove I’m up to the task, I make decisions at lightening speed while playing more Candy Crush.  Am I up to the task? No I am not. My brain gets even more tired. Activity –> consequences–> more of the same activity … Anyone see a pattern here?  Yes, I work with addicts because I understand them.

Of course, one of the problems with addictions is that there is no or little time for meaningful relationships. My wife has noticed. My kids, not so much. They’re on their own phones playing games.

My solution? Multitasking. Watch TV with my wife, while talking about the day and play Candy Crush! Interrupt it all when the phone rings or a text message comes through. Of course, the thought is … This how I’ll relax. In the middle of this, I complain because I can’t hear myself think. Somebody else is interrupting my thought patterns. Multi-tasking is a good thing isn’t it?

Clearly, this isn’t working. I’m horrible at multi-tasking and a failure at doing-life-as-everybody-else does-it, assuming of course that everybody else does do life this way. I analyzed the situation.

Acknowledging the problem is the first step toward fixing life’s problems.So, what’s the problem ? My brain is tired. The answer? Rest it. Why is it tired? Too many decisions. Where can I make fewer decisions? Not work. Not with my wife if I hope to still have a relationship. TV only requires a decision every half-hour. Candy Crush?  There’s the problem! 20 decisions in a minute!!!! But I like it! Now what?

Maybe the problem is… Multi-tasking.

So here’s my solution: Uni-tasking. Only one thing at a time. Put down the phone. Have a conversation until it’s done. Turn the tv off while I converse. Then answer the phone after the show. Then play a game, or do something else..

After my most recent conference in Washington, D.C., I have become more and more interested in how the brain functions. Recent studies say that we have 2 different speeds for focus — intense, quick decisions and slow, blocks of time on a longer project. We get stressed when we have to shift gears between the two.

What I have discovered in uni-tasking is that I enjoy each thing wholly, rather than sort of. I get to take in the full presence of the person I talk to or the animal I pet or child I talk with. I’m full present when I pray or just sit quietly. The process forces me to think between things and I feel more in control of my own life, with fewer mistakes made and less frustration. My choices are better, because my choosing is better. My thinking is clearer, which changes the feedback loop from chaos and getting worse to more in control and getting better. That’s the way I like to go.

Is this easy? No. It decidedly is not. It isn’t easy to remember to do uni-tasking, at all. When I do it, I like it. Remembering to do it is not easy.  Because I do like it and it does work for me, I encourage you to try it. Maybe you’ll like the “flow” better. If you are one of those people who can — and likes — multi-tasking, which so many people apparently are — do whatever works.

Note: As part of this clearing process, I don’t think I’ll be blogging for awhile. My next post will be at the end of July/beginning of August and will be something special, unless something BIG comes up and I feel compelled to write to write in the meantime.

Peace,

John