Who Are You Working For?

“Who exactly do you feel like you’re letting down?”

I had never really dwelt on the question before. I just knew I felt as if I wasn’t getting the job done. All my efforts felt scattershot, pecking away a little bit here and there. I could always look back at something I did and blame that for my not finishing something important. This was particularly true in instances where I had done something of no lasting consequence, such as playing a video game or lying down for a nap. I knew I was failing … but who, exactly, was I failing?

Quotation-Stephen-Hawking-blame-guilt-human-people-Meetville-Quotes-1595I’ve written here before about dichotomous thinking. This is when a person sees nearly everything in terms of black and white. There is no gray. Something is either right or it is wrong. How does this manifest in my life? Well, one area is work. Now, “work” for me can mean a great many things, which is actually part of the problem here. Going to my job every day is work, but I also somehow manage to turn writing this recreational blog into work as well. Therefore, I am very much driven by what I am supposed to be doing.

Here’s an example: I consider myself – correctly or incorrectly – a writer. What is the pinnacle for a writer’s work? Well, writing a book, of course. I have some ideas. Heck, I probably have enough material from this blog to get a pretty good jump on a book of essays. I just can’t seem to get anywhere on it. I have several theories for this – poor time management, lack of strong material, intimidated by the process of putting everything together, etc., etc. – but the bottom line is always this: I don’t get it done, and I squander the writing ability I have in the process, thereby making me a failure.

This brings the issue full circle, though. Who exactly am I letting down by not getting this done? I mean, is it potential readers? Is it my family? Is it myself? The only answer I could come with will sound a bit lofty: God. I have these abilities that were placed in me, and I do nothing with them. At least, I don’t use them to their full capabilities, and that absolutely fills me with guilt.

Another component of my guilt is a profound feeling of selfishness, and even though several people have tried to impress upon me the fact that I really don’t do many things strictly with myself in mind, I generally view myself as an extremely selfish person. In fact, I sort of view myself as a product of the society we live in today. Everyone is trying to get theirs, and even the people giving only seem to be doing it so they can be seen by others. Our hobbies are expensive, and our universes seem to be focused almost entirely on our own orbits.

What if, though, we’re all just trying to escape our own guilt? What if we’re all chasing these ridiculous dreams and kim-kardashian-kanye-westnotions around in the hopes that one of them will eventually allow us to look in the mirror and say, “Okay, that is the one that hit the mark!”? Could there be some kind of guilt hidden in the Kardashians of the world? Could the Kanye Wests be trying to meet some mark the rest of us don’t know about? Okay, I’m stretching now, but maybe you get the point. Is it possible that we’re all just trying to please someone?

So let me finish the way I started: Who exactly do you feel like you’re letting down?

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Space

waltons-arguingRemember those old westerns where there was a family living on a homestead, and the oldest son desperately wanted to get off the farm, but his parents wouldn’t let him go? He would always go storming out of the house, and the mother would always begin to pursue him, but the father would grab her and say something along the lines of “Just let him go. Give him some space.”

Personally, I am not a big fan of “space.” I’ve always believed that if you give a person in a bad state of mind more room to move, the more likely they are to do something rash or stupid. I usually prefer to stay and slug things out, even if it is a terribly uncomfortable and unfruitful process. There are obviously times when some space would be a good idea, but I am rather stubborn about this. I would probably grab that kid on the way out the door and not let him leave the house.

Sometimes when a person is depressed or sad or disturbed about something, the people around them want to give them space. “Just give him a little room to get over it.” I think one reason this occurs is because depression can look an awful lot like anger to the outside observer. You have someone who is not really talking to anyone, not making eye contact, and making virtually no effort whatsoever to be sociable. Mad people need space to cool down, right?

Many times, though, the person you thought was angry is really very, very depressed, which can make communicating with anyone a considerable chore. Symptoms that accompany depression can be extreme feelings of shame, anxiety, guilt, and, yes, even anger. Many people who suffer from it tend to isolate themselves, which creates an odd paradox within themselves: They don’t want anyone to bother them, but at the same time they feel dreadfully, painfully alone.

This is why I don’t believe granting space is always the best course of action. I know in my personal experiences of attempting to isolate myself, I have been screaming inside for someone, anyone to make an effort to reach out to me. I don’t have the strength to come get you; I want you to come get me. Granted, I don’t always like what people have to say to me in those moments they come after me, but I do appreciate on some level the fact that they at least tried to do something. Too often, though, I see people walking on eggshells around me, afraid to find out what’s really going on inside.

If you are more in the “space” camp, I totally respect your point of view. Sometimes hotheads need to get away from everyone before they can cool off and think rationally. Too many times, though, I have seen people fall though the cracks of “space,” and by the time anyone notices they’re gone, it is too late to help them. Think about it. What is one of the most common statements following a suicide? “I had no idea…” I don’t say this out of condemnation, but rather out of concern. Not everyone needs to be left alone.

So the next time you notice someone drifting way or being more quiet than usual, ask them a question or two. You may not get an honest answer, but you may let them know that someone cares about them. They may still want to leave the farm, but at least you tried to keep them around for one more crop first.

The Most Terrible Time Of The Year

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time of the year in the United States. It’s a time when families come together for no other reason than to acknowledge their blessings, spend time with each other, and eat until their hearts are content. It’s a day when everyone is encouraged to take stock of the good things in their lives and see how those are what really matter. It is a lead-in to the most joyous of holidays, which extends beyond the borders of the U.S. and reaches in to the entire world – Christmas.

The holidays can indeed foster times of great joy and happiness. Unfortunately, they can also prove to be mental quicksand for those dealing with feelings of depression.

As with many topics related to depression, it can be difficult to explain why the holidays can be so holiday-bluesdifficult to navigate without venturing into self-pity. “Oh, how can they continue to play all this happy music and talk about all these wonderful things when I’m so sad? Can’t they see what I’m going through?” What many people with depression don’t realize is how self-centered the disease can make them. They become blind to how selfish they’ve become.

For those who are self-aware, though, depression around the holidays becomes a double whammy. The person knows they are not being grateful enough. They also know how selfish they are for feeling the way they do. As a result, they not only feel depression, but they also are hit with waves and waves of guilt. It’s a vicious cycle, and it only leads one way – down.

I’m not here to offer any pat answers about how to not be depressed around the holidays. In fact, I would greatly appreciate if everyone reading this could share your tips about how you manage to cope with the holiday blues. All I am trying to do is encourage understanding among those who have never had an un-thankful Thanksgiving or a not-so-merry Christmas for those who are having a hard time getting it together this year. You might not be able to cure them, but you can at least provide a helping hand to get them through.

Charlie Brown Christmas Lucy adviceAnd from me to you, if you’re someone riding a wave of depression from Thanksgiving on the way towards Christmas, hang in there. Better days can be ahead for you. In fact, you could be in a better day right now and just not know it. If you can’t feel it, though, don’t stack layers of guilt upon yourself. You’re not the first person to be where you are, and you’re not going to get it right all the time. It may not be the most wonderful time of the year, but it doesn’t have to be the most terrible either.

Tuneful Tuesday: Depths Of Guilt

Before I decided to moan about my whacked-out sleep schedule yesterday, I had intended to write a series of posts this week about guilt and how it basically eats away at the psyches of those who suffer from depression. Of course, I obviously didn’t do that, so now I feel a bit guilty about knocking myself off track. Mission accomplished.

I can’t think of many songs the delve as deeply into the pits of guilt than “Hurt,” the devastating lament written by Trent Reznor about … well, what exactly is this song about anyway? I mean, it has some pretty obvious references to heroin addiction and self-harm. Beyond that, though, what exactly is it saying? Is it about someone apologizing? Is it about someone giving up? Is it about someone holding on?

Whatever the correct interpretation is (and, really, most truly great songs don’t have one correct interpretation anyway), the person the song features is definitely experiencing some heavy-duty guilt. “I will let you down/I will make you hurt”? Here’s someone who obviously feels as if they’ve inflicted some damage. And maybe they have. So it could be argued that the song is an exercise in self-awareness: I’ve done some bad stuff, and I know it.

Whether it’s the Johnny Cash version of the Nine Inch Nails version (Personally, I prefer the Cash rendition, and not just because it says “crown of thorns” instead of “crown of …”, well, not thorns.), there’s a distinct heaviness in what’s being sung. The temptation for me as a listener is to sort of wallow in the place the song is taking me. “Well, they’re right; everyone does go away in the end.”

But there has to be more than that, right?

It’s okay to be self-aware, but it can definitely be taken to extremes. I can realize I’m guilty of something, but I don’t have to let that guilty act define me as a person. Now, the depressive part of my brain can’t believe I just typed that last sentence. Guilt involves bad stuff, right? Therefore, if I’m guilty, I must be bad.

Hmm, apparently that sleepiness I referred to yesterday hasn’t completely dissipated, as I’m not even sure what I’m trying to say at this point. So here’s a video. Goodnight.

The Sacred And The Profane

I tried to be good. I really, really did. I white-knuckled the bar until I thought I would bend it in half. I looked around, formed an interpretation of the standard, and did my best to live by it.

And now I’m kind of tired.

rules-for-allBefore anyone gets alarmed, this is not one of those “Here’s Why I Left Christianity” posts. I am still very much a Christian. I still believe Jesus Christ is the son of God and that he died on a cross and was raised from the dead three days later. I believe his blood washed away my sins and that he has made me a new creation. I believe the Bible is the holy word of God and that it contains the words of wisdom needed to live a joyful and fulfilling life. As the late Rich Mullins once sang, “I believe what I believe.”

The older I get, though, I’m beginning to realize the very real danger of turning Christianity into such a rigid, unyielding, methodical set of rules that it somehow ceases to be transforming, redemptive, or powerful. Such an emphasis can be put on “doing the right thing” that we begin to run the risk of never know exactly what we should be doing. Following the script becomes the most important thing, and the specter of self-condemnation is ever at the door. It’s not so much a falling from grace as it is simply giving it up in favor of an impossible standard.

I lived a lot of years around people who abused the concept of grace. They basically turned it into a license to treat people however they wanted and then turn the other person’s hurt back on them by accusing them on not extending grace to them. It was messed up, but it made me rigid as far as the rules were concerned. I sure didn’t want to be like that, so I adopted the hard line. The only problem was, I still sinned, and since I was so bent on keeping the rules, I beat the crap out of myself every time I broke one. That’s what the serious Christians did, I told myself.

I have literally lost track of how many times I have cleaned out all my “secular” music, only to replenish all of it within a couple of years. I purged all my movies I deemed unacceptable, but, you know, Marvel’s The Avengers was pretty cool, so… I stopped cursing … well, except for when I got really mad or when I wanted to make a point or when I was alone in the car or…

And I felt very, very guilty about all this for a very, very long time. No, actually, I felt ashamed of all this. Guilt would describe how I felt about committing these heinous infractions; shame would describe the loathing of who I was as a person who couldn’t seem to get it right.

I still believe grace can be carried too far, but I’m also beginning to believe the leash may be a little longer than I thought it was. I let a word go ron burgundyhere and there, sometimes accidentally, sometimes not. I have the dialog from a large chunk of the movie Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy memorized. “The Humpty Dance,” by Digital Underground, is on my iPod. Do all these items added up sound like a formula for biblical wisdom? Possibly not. Do I get a certain level of enjoyment out of them, though? Um, yeah. Yeah, I do. More joy than I got out of attempting to live like a pharisee, that’s for sure.

The question becomes, then, where to draw the line? Is this all a sign that I’m loosening up and living a little or am I gradually sliding toward oblivion? I’d like to think it’s the former more than the latter. One of the effects of depression is how it can paralyze your decision-making abilities, and two stone tablets carved full of rules on your shoulders doesn’t help this any. As someone recently said to me, whatever decision you make is yours. Whether it’s good or bad, you have to live with the consequences. But, in the end, it’s yours.

I am not a thrill-seeker. I’m not looking for danger. I’m generally a nice guy. I want to be a good Christian and a good parent and a good husband. I would like to do all that while I’m alive, though, and not some hollow shell that’s forgotten how to experience the joy of life. It’s a process I’m still walking out, trying to determine the line between the sacred and the profane. It’s probably a line more people are walking than would care to admit.

The Righteousness Of Christ

0916141037In case you’re not familiar with it, this is the Personality Assessment Inventory, a 300-plus item survey designed to evaluate a person’s mental condition. Actually, it’s a little more clinical and technical than that, but the official definition of the P.A.I. contains enough psycho-babble to actually drive a sane person crazy, so I’ll stick to layman’s terms here. I’ve filled it out a couple of times, and I’ve been struck both times by the simultaneous depth and ridiculousness of some of the statements it contains.

The way the P.A.I. works is, a person is given a list of statements and then asked to rate them as “false,” “somewhat true,” “mainly true,” and “very true.” I’ve always thought the P.A.I. contained an excessive amount of questions concerning alcohol and drug use, but since I’ve never had a problem with either of these I may not notice their importance. There is one statement in particular, however, that always grabs my attention: I deserve severe punishment for my sins.

As a Christian, I feel as if I’m supposed to mark “false” based on the following reasoning: Christ died for my sins, and the punishment for them has been removed. I’m pretty sure, however, that both times I’ve filled out the P.A.I. I’ve filled in the circle for “very true.” To be honest, I’ve always felt like I was going to be one of those people who only got into heaven because I asked Jesus into my heart and God would therefore be required to begrudgingly take me in. When I saw the word “righteous” in the Bible, I knew it wasn’t talking about me; I was sinful, and I knew it.

Thinking this way can obviously suck a lot of the joy out of the Christian life. I constantly compared myself to others, judging my life based on what their lives appeared to be like. I didn’t know if they struggled with anything or not. They looked good on the outside, said all the right things, and knew all the right scriptures. I’ve always felt like an impostor, someone who would be kicked out and disowned if anyone ever caught wind of what was actually in my heart. Obtaining righteousness became a goal to me, and I could never quite reach it.

And then, for some reason, like a bolt from the blue, I realized something yesterday: I can’t reach it.

“For our sake, He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” I could never do anything to attain the righteousness necessary to stand before God. His mercy and grace is a gift, and I could never earn anything from Him. If Jesus’ righteousness is standing in for me, then, and I could never do anything obtain righteousness on my own, wouldn’t it stand to reason once I had it that I couldn’t do anything to lose it either? Is it possible that because of Jesus I am actually made righteous by him, no matter what I do?

I’m not advocating sin here, nor am I trying to give myself a free pass for any transgressions I may committed. What I am trying to grasp is that I … am … righteous. Those righteous people the Bible talks about? I’m one of them. “There is now no condemnation…” Even typing this, I’m fighting it. “I deserve severe punishment for my sins.” Thing is, I actually do deserve it. Someone stepped in, though, and took it for me, and when God looks at me He sees the sacrifice, not the sin.

I’m only sharing this because during the countless sermons and church services I’ve sat through and the hours of programs and CD’s I’ve listened to, I never thought of righteousness this way before. I’m sure many of you are shaking your heads and saying, “Duh, I’ve known all this for a long time.” Well, I haven’t. I’m still not sure I understand it fully. I need to get this in my soul, though. One of the hallmarks of depression is guilt, and not understanding righteousness produces heaps of it. I’ll say it again: I need to get this.

am righteous.

am righteous.

am righteous.

Out Of Tune

guitarThe gentleman you see in the picture there is Mr. Dan Knowles, luthier of stringed instruments, picker of banjos, and, in this instance, re-stringer of 12-string acoustic guitars. The guitar in the picture is mine, a 12-string Alvarez of unknown year. I acquired it in a trade involving an Oscar Schmidt acoustic 12-string, a Yamaha Pacifica electric guitar, and a 15-watt Crate amplifier. The sound and playability of the Alvarez is superior to the Oscar Schmidt, but it does possess a slight kink: It doesn’t seem to want to stay in tune, hence my trip to Knowles Stringed Instruments this afternoon.

There’s a word in the vocabulary of guitar players that has been known to cause many of them to go insane. That word is intonation. In short, it means accuracy of pitch, but the maddening thing about intonation on a guitar is it can change depending on where you are on the neck. For instance, your guitar may sound perfectly in tune when the strings are open (i.e., not pressed down against the neck), but they may sound slightly off when you fret a note in a certain position. Even worse, there are any number of factors that could cause this problem – tension on the neck, a bad bridge, worn-down frets, etc., etc.

To someone just listening to a guitar being played, poor intonation may not even be noticeable. To the person playing the instrument, though, it’s like a nagging house fly buzzing around their head. It sticks out like a sore thumb whenever a sour note is hit, and it can throw a musician totally off in a performance. The irony is that the performer may be the only person aware of the problem, but it puts them as out of sync with their audience as the slightly sharp or flat note is to the rest of the guitar. They don’t want to stop and point it out, though, because that would be even worse than just bearing the problem.

As human beings, our intonation gets off sometimes. We don’t want to tell anyone, though, because that would ruin the performance. They don’t seem to notice anything is wrong, so we feel we can’t expose our imperfections to them. There are few things worse in life, in my opinion, than being unable to confess a burden – whether it be depression, addiction, guilt, regret – to anyone. The longer it festers, the more it puts us out of tune … so to speak.

I had the advantage of being able to take my guitar to someone as skilled as Dan Knowles to correct the problem I was having with it. So many times, though, either because of pride or shame or stigmas against counseling  or any number of reasons, people don’t take their mental and spiritual issues to someone who can actually help them. They want to keep the performance going even though they know something is not right. What they really need, though, is someone skilled enough to repair their intonation.

Of course, as luck would have it, once a tuner was put on my guitar today, every string read perfectly in tune up and down the neck. I could have sworn the intonation was off, though, and I’m glad I had it checked out, if for no other reason than to convince my ears they weren’t hearing what they thought they were hearing. I’ve read that one of the charms of the sound of a 12-string guitar is that it’s never actually perfectly in tune anyway. Maybe people are the same way. If we were all perfect, this would be a pretty dull show, don’t you think?