From the Other Side

Some months ago, I had a bout of depression. Only I didn’t fully realize it until the bout was fully over. 

I had had some stresses and disappointments fall into my lap as the fall season settled in and the days got shorter and darker and colder (which never helps when it comes to matters of mood). But, I made up my mind to manage it like the Gilmore girls – wallow for a weekend and move on. Then, one weekend of oversleeping and binge-watching Netflix and binge-eating my now trademark brownie in a mug turned into one week, then two, then a month, and so on.

I remember talking to a pastor friend in his office one day and crying (which is weird, because I’m not a crier) and saying, “I’m not interested in anything lately. Not work, not church, not reading, nothing. And that’s terrifying.”

It’s terrifying to know that you feel 100% not like yourself. That, on the contrary, a lazy, lifeless alien seems to have taken up residence within you.

As soon as I identified this particular terror, my pastor friend replied matter-of-factly: “You’re depressed.” And, even though I’ve known for years that I have chronic depression and know the symptoms and know some of the triggers, this simple statement surprised me. It may always be jarring to have someone stop and see your condition for what it really is and say so.

“I mean, don’t get me wrong,” I said defensively, “I’m still going to work and church and all. I’m doing what I’ve gotta do.” (This is sometimes called high-functioning depression, I’ve learned.)

He shook his head. “I don’t want to see you just surviving. I want us to get you thriving.”

We wondered together for a few minutes what it would take to get me thriving. And I wonder now, from the other side of the depression, what in fact it took to get me thriving – as I have been, gratefully, for months now – and what it could take for others like me and maybe like you to get through this too.

grass_is_greenerFrom the other side, I see that, as St. Augustine writes in his Confessions: “Time does not stand still, nor are the rolling seasons useless to us, for they work wonders in our minds. They came and went from day to day, and by their coming and going implanted in me other hopes and other memories. Little by little they sent me toward things that had earlier delighted me, and before these my sorrow began to give ground.”

From the other side, I see that at least three things stand in the valley between me and my depression like great, calm shields.

From the other side, I see purpose peeking through in the work God has called me to do. Purpose in the co-workers or clients or customers I could meet, the goods and services we could exchange, the relationships we could form, the daily little impacts we could make on the world, the bits of beauty we could build in the world.

I see people who love me and are loved by me. People like the pastor friend who let me cry in his office. The therapist who asked annoying questions and got on my nerves but helped a little, I have to admit. The housemates who patiently lived with Depression for a couple months – and even made her laugh sometimes – rather than living with their usual roommate. In that passage from Augustine’s Confessions that I just quoted, it’s rather hard to tell (at least in English translations) what “they” refers to. It comes in the context of Augustine talking quite a bit about the consolation he received from friends, a consolation that helped him through a time of great grief. And I would agree with him that friends “came and went from day to day, and by their coming and going implanted in me other hopes and other memories.” They reminded me who I am, what I love, what I hope for – and even, when hope seemed hard for me, what they hoped for me.

Finally, from the other side of depression, I see prayer happening. Prayers of others carrying me through, whether I realized it or not (because most of the time I didn’t realize it). Prayers of the saints who wrote the psalter and the Book of Common Prayer and heavy, pleading Advent hymns like “O Come, O Come Immanuel” that helped me plead for Christ’s presence right along with them. And, finally, prayers of my own sneaking slowly back into the sleepless nights and the sleepy mornings, the healing of Lent and the healed-ness of Easter – seasons that quite literally paralleled the progression of my depression this year.

As Donald Miller says in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, “it’s as though God is saying, ‘Write a good story, take somebody with you, and let me help.’”

If you or someone you know lives with depression, if you’re right in the thick of it and can’t even fathom the other side, hear that with me: Find purpose in your story. Take people with you. And let God help.

From the other side of depression, I promise: It will get better. It takes time. But it will get better.


Hi, My Name Is Joe

As a kid, I learned this song about a stressed-out guy named Joe. It went something like this:

Hi, my name is Joe
I got a wife and three kids and I work in a button factory
One day my boss came to me and said, “Joe, are you busy?”
I said, “no.”
He said, “Then push the button with your right hand.”

We would then begin to push a pretend button with our right hands and launch into the song again, ending this time with “left hand” and the addition of right and left hand pretend-button pushing.The song could continue ad nauseum, requiring participants to “push the button” with both hands, both feet, head, nose, and the optional silliness of tongue and backside. I remember trying to teach this song to my dad in the car once and wondering why he wasn’t getting into the spirit of things. (Oh, right, he was holding onto the steering wheel and keeping us alive.)

I haven’t sung about Joe the Button Pusher in years. But I haven’t forgotten about him. Because sometimes I am Joe — juggling work that I’m passionate about with the right hand, work that pays the bills with the left hand, and family, friends, church, hobbies, and health with my remaining weary appendages.juggling

Juggling. It’s a picture I keep coming back to when I think about life lately.

So I wonder: What are you juggling? What do you do when you start to realize you’re juggling? (No, really. What do you do? Help me out here!)

I’ve seen basically 3 options:

1) Keep juggling. Except that this is unhealthy, leading to burnout and manifest in an array of potential psychological, physiological, social, and spiritual consequences. (Even Joe the Button Pusher doesn’t keep juggling forever. Eventually, after probably an unhealthy duration of time, Joe’s Button-Pusher Boss asks Joe if he’s busy and he belts out yes.)

2) Say no. This is so healthy. And so hard. Resources like Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend’s best-selling book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life have helped me get a bit better at saying no. Making a list of what I’m juggling and then prayerfully prioritizing the items on the list has helped me too. But, let’s be real. It’s still so hard. If for no other reason than sometimes we really can’t say no — can’t say no to a true emergency, to a child or elderly person who needs help, even to a task that’s stressful but we feel utterly called to do nonetheless.

3) Be like Benedict. This is a middle way, a via media, that I’ve been dabbling in recently using the Rule of St. Benedict. This is a way of not only saying a black-and-white “yes” to some things and “no” to other things but saying “with God’s help” to all things. This is a way of practicing the presence of God while working and even by working (although not to the exclusion of rest). St. Benedict upholds as his highest priorities ora et labora: “pray and work.” In fact, as Benedict writes, “he who labors as he prays lifts his heart to God with his hands.” The contemporary writer and Benedictine oblate Kathleen Norris helps us see this in modern life in her writings like Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work. Benedict could see prayer happening in daily labor. Norris has seen prayer happening in daily laundry of all things.

What exactly does Benedict have to do with juggling many tasks? What would he do — what can we do — in Joe the Button Pusher’s situation?        

We can pray and work. We can pray while working and even by working. The juggling may continue, but it will continue with God’s help — a little steadier, a little stronger, a little sweeter.  

A Dream Journal

My first job ever was working at a local YMCA’s summer day camp, supervising unruly children day after day. One
day, I was called into my boss’s office and issued a warning because a kid in my class had been briefly “missing” (he had run off to the bathroom without telling anyone — totally not my fault, I swear). But the warning scared me nonetheless. Soon after that, in a literal mid-summer night’s dream, I dreamt that not only was the kid missing but he was running away and I was futilely chasing after him. In the dream there appeared a giant, fantastically steep hill next to the YMCA and the kid started tumbling down the hill and I started tumbling after him, as if we were Jack and Jill. I awoke, startled, feeling physically as though lurching a little forward and forward, spinning and spinning.

I don’t think I had ever attempted dream interpretation until that day. I still don’t take it too seriously and certainly not superstitiously. I didn’t think, for instance, that I was about to literally lose a little boy to a giant hill. I thought, however, that I was perhaps feeling scared of under-performing at work, losing kids, disappointing bosses. Afraid of failing. The dream, perhaps, told me something about myself that I hadn’t yet been able to put my finger on until a subconscious story showed up in my sleep.  

And, it kept happening. Not the tumbling or the losing kids or the YMCA job (thank goodness — that was a rough job for me). But the fear of failure flashing before my mind’s eye in the mid of night.

Years later, while I was working at a church and reporting to mentors I respected greatly, I dreamt that I was at the church — only it wasn’t my church but some massive, modern auditorium with a domed roof — and was asked to help fix something at the last minute. I don’t remember what exactly. To tackle the task, a particular pencil was purportedly required and I was such a people-pleaser that off I went on an epic dream journey across the labyrinthine church to find the darn pencil.

When I got to work the next day, I might have asked my boss if he needed a pencil.

Moreover, I might have asked myself if I needed a chill pill. If I was putting perhaps too much stock, even placing perhaps too much of my self-worth, in what “higher-ups” think of me and my work.

I’ve heard people — especially people with a creative bent like writers, artists, storytellers — recommend keeping a dream journal. They say it can be a starting point for stories, it can show you scenes, it can tell you truths. And, I’m starting to believe them.

Whether it’s dreams during the night, daydreams, or dreams as in goals I hope to accomplish someday…I’m starting to believe the dreams. I’m starting to see themes in them, sleeping and waking, and I bet you can too. Over time, anyway.

We don’t have to keep a dream journal per se. But we have to keep dreaming on our journeys. We have to keep dreaming of fears and hopes so that we can face the fears and have the hopes.

The Divinity in the Details (a.k.a. What I’ve Learned From Working At a Church)

06-2015 desk at churchI’ve been working/interning at a large Episcopal church for about a year now, and wrapping up my time there begs the question: What have I learned from working at a church?

One lesson (among many): The devil doesn’t have to be in the details.

Let me explain.

Growing up, I was a particularly idealistic youth. Even while sensing a call to vocational ministry from a fairly young age (16 or so), I insisted that I would not work at a church because I wanted to focus on “loving God and loving neighbor” without the “distraction” of decisions and details. Without the bylaws and boards, budgets and even buildings. I read a lot of Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (and didn’t completely understand them). I dreamed of “doing church” in a park, in a coffee shop, at a school or university — anywhere but in a traditional church setting.

Until God pulled a funny one and placed me in a very traditional church setting. Over the past 2 years, I’ve been parishioner, intern, and staff. Basic job description: deal with details for the contemporary worship services.

The very thought of my daydreaming self doing such a down-to-earth job makes me want to glare at God and say “thanks a lot” with simultaneous sarcasm…and sincerity.

Here’s what the church job has taught me: I used to expect Sunday to happen more or less without the other 6 days. But that doesn’t work. And that’s okay.

Decisions and details, it turns out, are only a distraction if done distractedly. Done diligently, they’re a vital way to love God and love others.

I’ve seen my staff team, for instance, utilize the assistance of 100+ lay volunteers…and yet ask at each team meeting: “Are there any volunteers in need of encouragement this week?” Thinking-of-you cards and thank you cards are then composed on the spot. These are people we plan for…but also people we pray for.

I’ve seen countless emails about who’s going to do what at which service…and yet the end result of that work is (hopefully) a welcoming and worshipful experience for hundreds of people.

I’ve seen decisions deliberated over and delivered to congregations in such challenging ways that, not too long ago, I would have said “count me out of this mess”…and yet, in the midst of the mess, messages have been preached, babies baptized, families formed, and lives altogether lived out little by little into the love and likeness of Christ.

I’ve seen a lot of little things go on at church, especially Monday-Friday. But you know what? I’ve seen those little things get done with some great love and result in some great love.

As Brother Lawrence puts it in The Practice of the Presence of God: “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

So, the devil is not necessarily in the details. On the contrary, divinity can work mightily in and through those minutiae.

Some of us — like me — may still be dreamers, not planners, at heart.

But let’s not let details keep us from church, from community, from calling, from Christ. Let’s use them, as I finally know we can, to love God and love others.

We Need To Talk

“We need to talk.”

What do you think of when you hear those words?

I’ve been realizing over the last several months that, when I hear something like that, I immediately assume the worst. I worry, sometimes for days, that either a) I’m in trouble or b) someone close to me is in trouble. But usually that I’m in trouble.

Why? Probably because I have a somewhat neurotic personality and have experience, unfortunately, with unhealthy workplaces led by unpredictable supervisors. Sometimes, the supervisor would call me in to his office to praise my job performance, other times to threaten my job security. The praise and the threats may have happened 50/50; I’m not sure. But, as I learned in a psychology class once, there’s this thing called the negativity bias that makes negative experiences impact us more than neutral or positive experiences. For example, if my supervisor criticized me 5 times a week (true story), he might need to affirm me, say, 10 times a week in order for me to come away with an unbiased perception of our interactions. And I don’t think that’s asking too much; it’s what we call “constructive criticism” or maybe “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). But my supervisor didn’t seem to go that route.

So, I became scared of his office. Scared of the desk phone that so often summoned me into his office. Scared, sometimes, of just waking up in the morning and driving into work. Long after shaking off that situation (with Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” playing as I drove away; no joke), it seems I’m scared of someone saying “we need to talk.”

But here’s the thing: sometimes we just need to talk.

A few days ago, someone in a supervisory position over me suggested that we go to lunch. I swear, the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up. Lunch time came around, we ordered salads, and after several minutes of small talk and sipping sweet teas, I asked her, “So, did you want to discuss something in particular?”

“No,” she said with the simplest smile. “I just thought we hadn’t touched base in a while, just the two of us.”

I sat down my fork and breathed in deep (note to self: do this more often).

Hours of anxiety released like a deflating balloon.

Suddenly, the small talk seemed sufficient rather than suspenseful, as if maybe we’re meant to just be together rather than just be together until some ticking time bomb goes off. Suddenly, I wasn’t so scared. I was just there — fully, freely there. I cared more genuinely about her toddler’s antics and approaching anniversary, and I could accept that she cared quite genuinely about my roommates and writing.

We need to talk. We really do. And I’m resolved to redeem that phrase.