My mother was the queen of worry. It was her daily bread, her calling, her nature.
If there was a summer thunderstorm, she soon had our family, except my father, who I believe she often wished WOULD sail away, heading down into the cellar. If we were going to the Fourth of July Parade, we had to be in a back row, as the horses might stampede, and when we watched the fireworks it had to be at a safe distance, like several miles. For me, the fireworks looked more like those sparklers kids lit and lofted up to the collective oohs of their friends -- of course I have never held a sparkler. I also never climbed trees, went past the railroad tracks, or came in after the street lights went on. If I did, I was assured mother would be holding vigil at the front door. Her silent stare was capable of felling a buffalo at a hundred paces.
Unfortunately, I am also a worrier. When my wife told my son he could ride his bike into Sag Harbor on his own, I was the one who snuck out and trailed him all the way into town. When Justin was being taught how to dive deep into the fresh cooling waters of the Schoharie Creek, I would hold my breath until he came up for air, or dive and dive until I could see his murky paddling feet. And as for sickness, I was aware of every bug he or we might catch in a five state area. If I told myself not to worry, it was like having a mosquito bite and trying not to itch it -- I never lasted long. I still am a worrier, but no longer a hopelessly paralyzed one.
Worry is of course intimately related to fear, and fear can be quite real. Fear can also be a fabrication, or the result of our perfectionism or lack of control, or simply the choice to conjure up some kind of devastating scenario for no apparent reason. I could literally worry myself sick by dwelling on a fear, stirring it into a whirlwind, and projecting out to some crazy absurd certain future doom. Fear can consume us, freeze our feet in place, or spin us around until we throw-up. Fear is expecting the worst. Fear is meant to caution us, to warn us, to make us alert. For the chronic worrier, fear is simply Life’s background noise, whining into our ears all day long.
Worry is good buddies with anxiety, as anxiety is fear without an object, or better put, the fear of anything and everything. Anxiety is looking up to the sky for the next bomb to drop. Anxiety is getting ready for failure or flops or embarrassment or being found out to be a complete loser. Bottom line, anxiety is our spiritual way of knocking ourselves off the pedestal. Sadly, many of us also need to stomp on ourselves once we hit the ground. We need to pummel ourselves into submission – into the belief that we deserve our pain or punishment, This may defy all or any reason, and be completely absurd, but held with a deep and passionate and taffy like conviction.
When it comes to worry, fear, and anxiety, we all suffer to varying degrees. For some it can be momentary, for some it may last days, and for others of us, like myself, we may go through periods which can last months. Some sad folks have no respite, this queasy worried sick state is their daily norm. I have never found any sure solution, nor fool proof means of dispelling my fears, but I have discovered a few strategies which do seem to help, and alleviate the paralysis so that I can at least function.
First and foremost, I try to have a little faith. Faith is expecting the best, and faith in the Grace of God is a belief that this too shall pass. I try to increase time spent in meditation and prayer, which is a good balance to worrying’s dwelling, and I read devotional material which is not sappy or sentimental, but offers some inspirational courage. It is faith which also leads me to get my mind off of myself, and to find solace in service. If I try to make someone else’s day, it always lifts the fear fog at least a bit, enough to be able to at least see.
I also work on looking at the big picture. Taking my fear and trying to put it into perspective. This is also good for my attitude, and enabling me not to play the victim, or deciding that God has singled me out for cruel and unusual punishment. I am most sincere when I say that imaging the millions of children on our planet in search of food and shelter, does reduce the dimensions of my worries. Don’t get me wrong, there is no magic finger snap to vaporize my worry or fear, but the big picture does often offer some comfort and hope.
Beauty and exercise are my favorite tricks, as both have an uncanny ability to restore my spirits. Taking a long walk with my camera and looking for loveliness is a passion which can provide me with a belief in the rightness of Life, and God’s role as the Creator of it. Accepting, even if for a few minutes, that God is truly in charge, can cleanse my being of the sticky grime of worry, and remove the worry rash on my soul which threatens to wreck my whole day. Remember, I am looking for relief, not cures.
Worry is soul pain. It is the suffering of the human spirit in face of Life’s lack of predictability, and the reality that tragedy can and does strike at a moment’s notice, without warning, and with raw brutality at times. Life is difficult. Life can be a grueling ordeal. There is much to fear and worry about. However, we also have resources to keep us healthy, hopeful, and even happy. The key is to make the choice to use those resources, and wage war on worry now and then, Beat it back, Give it a good kick in the pants. Maybe even sign a truce. Maybe wave the white flag of surrender. Do what it takes to take back your power, and your spiritual power is to be alive, fully and honestly and responsibly awake.
Or, you could do what my grandmother Othilia advised, “Quit worrying, you’re not that important!” She also frequently said, “Don’t worry about what others think of you, because they don’t!” Wise lady.
A bright beautiful snow was falling lightly, sugaring the earth until there was a thin coat. We were on our way to see a movie matinee in East Hampton, and by the time we arrived, the sun was back out, and our eyes winced from the gleam off the snow. We were late for our film, per usual, and when we entered the theatre, we were paralyzed by the darkness. It took several minutes for our eyes to fully adjust, and we all held hands like frightened children until we could stagger our way down the aisle to find a few remaining seats.
We started to giggle. We were just a smidge frightened by the depth of the blackness we had encountered. Once seated, we finally caught our breath. We chose to ignore the wicked stares and mutterings of those around us, just feeling happy to have safely landed. We then decided not to get back and get our missing popcorn, which was a wise if not life saving decision.
Darkness can be powerful. I cannot imagine what it is like for a person to be blind. Though I always hear about how the other senses expand and adapt to the loss of vision, I still find the thought of such blackness to be truly terrifying.
When the lights go out in our soul, we have entered an arena called despair. Tar black darkness, the kind which does not allow for even a ray of hope, is usually the result of an event which stuns us with just how insignificant and out of control we are. When our spiritual lives experience an eclipse, the despair produced is thick to the point of becoming a real presence. When we have become the people who dwell in deep darkness, we are a people who are wandering and lost and hopeless, paralyzed with fear, and faking it on a daily basis. We may put on the “I AM JUST FINE” show, but we secretly and silently yearn just to find our seats.
My mother had called me to inform me my cousin Warren was coming for a visit from England – his first ever, and a trip he had saved up for, for years. I asked her where Warren would be staying. She said with them of course. I asked her politely if she thought that was such a good idea. She sighed, snorted and snapped, “Do YOU have a problem with that?”
I explained slowly and as thoughtfully as I could, that Dad’s Alzheimer’s was advancing and how the impact of sundown syndrome often made him surly and suspicious at best, and how he might find Warren to be a most mysterious threat – especially after dark.. She basically called my view nonsense and threw in a bit of guilt about my complete and utter lack of support. She told me she had thought better of me. I reminded her that my father often thought I was trying to run off with her, or that I was his brother Bill, and wagged a huge finger in my face while threatening to blacken my eye. She hung up.
As I predicted, Warren’s visit lasted less than forty-eight hours, as Dad tried to throw him out for flirting with my mother. Mom was devastatingly embarrassed. She began to weep. I assured her I would have Warren come East and I would show him a lovely time, and that I would explain everything to the poor guy in the morning--as Mom had told me he had gone for a walk.
She then asked me to talk to Dad. He got on the phone, and he said, “Billy, I have been a very bad boy...very bad.” My heart sunk, my body shook, and my soul withered and shattered. My once proud and manly father sounded so fragile and feeble and far away, and at that moment I knew he was gone for good. The despair was palpable.
Despair is what it is. It is bad news which must be heard, embraced, understood, accepted, coped with, and hopefully overcome. Despair is not the blues or sadness or even most forms of depression, it is a towering wave of recognition, an epiphany of pain, and a knowing that our world will never be the same. Something or someone has changed, been transformed, and something has truly died, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. It is over. It is gone for good. The past has swallowed it whole.
I still vividly recall 9/11. Living on Shelter Island in New York, I knew many folks who either worked at the Twin Towers, or had apartments or condos in the vicinity. The sky that September day was so clean and pure and blue. The whole earth quivered with freshness. The day itself was lit by hope.
The collapse of the towers was such a hideous contrast of dirty and messy and riddled with the blood and flesh of very real lives. I was watching thousands of people die on my TV. I might know some of them. I felt intimate to all of them. The despair was like swallowing spoiled milk. I so wanted to gag.
Watching the faces of those sprinting away from the filthy mushroom clouds which chased them zigzagging down the streets, was just plain agonizing. How on earth had our world once again come to this kind of insanity and evil? I was dumbstruck. I was still smart enough to know the world would never be the same.
I am not sure I can offer much insight in how to heal the hurt of despair. It definitely will leave the heart deeply scarred. Maybe what I learned from being momentarily blind in a movie theater was ironically a good preparation. Hold one another’s hand, toddle forward, and breathe, gasp, and be encased in the safety of your seat. Listen to the movie of your soul. Get your mind off of the evil for a bit. Feel the comfort of being seated near wonderful strangers you now think of as family. Try to relax. Try to accept that when you get up to leave, you will just not be the same. Nothing will.
Despair does spiritual pruning. No matter how we like it, something will have to go. It is the nature of being human, being alive, and trusting in God. Though seeing is indeed often the key to believing, believing is also the key to seeing. So go back outside and walk. Trust that your eyes will adjust again, and you will find your way back to your car – and to your HOME. And yes, you will see again, as you will laugh and learn and love again, not because Life just rolls along, but because there is simply no place else to do.
Despair is a part of the daily equation. It is never far away. It seldom goes away when we wish it to get lost. It remains the mean teacher who cracks the whip and forces us to grow-up. We grow-up on those days and at those times, when we accept that we were indeed never promised a rose garden, and roses, even for all their beauty, carry with them some nasty thorns.
How can Life ever be boring? Well, in many ways, and almost all of them have to do with the choices and decisions we make. Boredom does not come from the outside in, but from the inside out. Boredom is the result of failing to grow or learn or mature, but most of all it is a refusal to love or be awake or simply alive. We can indeed choose to create lives of sameness and routine, and then dig ourselves into a hole we call a rut, and then watch as the rut becomes a spiritual grave. Boredom is a perspective. It is wearing blinders and letting one cloud block out the whole sun. Boredom is coming up to bat and taking our swings, but with our eyes shut tight.
I admit modern living makes it extremely easy to fall into ruts and routines. Ours is a culture of addiction, where we are big on trivial pursuits and champion time wasters. We can spend whole days watching television, being on the phone, texting, or simpy racing around doing nothing and being even less. We know how to avoid Life, and frequently get consumed in making sure we face no conflicts or pains or crises of any kind. This is Life without living. The smooth fast lane expressway allows us to get there quicker, even if we have no idea where it is we wish to go.
In a culture saturated by drugs and other mind numbing “hobbies”, it is always an option not to sell your soul, but misplace it. Soulless living is to be dazed and confused, and refuse to make any choices which would force us to become more mature. We choose instead to grow down. We shrivel and shrink in our morals and ethics, and allow ourselves to become passive followers of pure unadulterated nonsense. Grown adults who spend hours gaming is not uncommon, and a real sign not of decadence, but of a destructive detachment forma spiritual life. When we cease to work at being significant, souls of substance, or simply making a difference, we have in effect chosen to rot on the vine.
Ours is a culture of addiction, and a major symptom of addiction is genuine boredom. Living without a point or a purpose, a rhyme or a reason, and believing each day as something to endure not experience. Think of the millions of Americans who travel great distances at great cost to gamble yet another new casino. Their actions are never questioned or found suspect. But if these same millions were to be donating volunteer time to address the myriads needs of our society, they would be consistently asked, “Why are you doing THAT?” Boredom is not just a sign of the times it could well be its mantra.
Bored to death is quite the turn of phrase. Choosing to be bored is indeed deciding to fill up our days with everything but being creative. We might make a living alright, but we fail miserably to make a Life. We fail to challenge our minds, deepen our hearts, exercise our souls, or strive to make the world a better place in which to live. We choose instead to repeat and repeat and repeat the same old behaviors and experiences, until we can do them on automatic pilot. Simply put, we stop learning, we stop believing we matter, and we stop striving to expand our horizons. We become narrow and rigid and shrink and shrivel and become as dry and dull as dust.
Here are some of the most common ruts we dig for ourselves. We stop reading. We stop listening. We stop chasing beauty. We stop having pure fun. We stop exploring mysteries. We stop challenging ourselves to embrace problems. We stop dreaming. We stop learning new things. We stop making new friends. We refuse to forgive. We carry large weight grudges. We dwell on getting even. We endlessly rehash the past. We set up impossible expectation for ourselves in the future. We let ourselves go physically. We forget what we are feeling. We don’t pay attention. We don’t notice. We don’t give thanks. We don’t sing praises. We don’t serve anyone. We make no genuine sacrifices. We sleep way too much or way too little. We don’t express a strong opinion. We take no risks. We fail to demand courage from ourselves. We grow comfortable marching in place, even if it is quicksand.
Getting out of a rut is often simple but seldom easy. The simple part is to stop digging. The hard part is climbing out. We can get ourselves in pretty damn deep, and often we will need assistance at getting back to the surface. We will often require guidance, encouragement, a helping hand and ear, and making choices which lift our spirits. Each little baby step upward is not only an achievement, but rewards the soul with hope.
Boredom can become decadent, and the decay we experience is often of our spirits and souls. Boredom is a choice, an attitude, and a perspective. It can become a way of life. What a waste! Think about your last really good day. Most likely what made it good was something quite small or even trivial. What made the difference was your being ready to receive, to embrace it, to name it and claim it for the goodness it exuded. Eliminate the pattern of cynical complaint, and we often reveal a deep desire to savor the day from dawn to dusk.
My uncle Ivan was a deliciously funny and loving man. He adored practical jokes. At a holiday party when I was ten, he convinced me that Danish aquavit, a most bitter and vile liquor, almost 40 % alcohol, and carrying the flavor of herbs, spices and caraway, was just like 7-Up. He said to drink it quickly and it would tickle my throat and make me laugh.
Upon ingesting, I was certain I would die. I so wanted NOT to cry, but I unleashed a torrent rage of tears. I would have killed my uncle if I had the means, but instead I fled to the bathroom to heave up this abominable concoction. I could hear my mother and grandmother scolding Ivan, while my other uncles and older cousins laughed.
The taste of bitter is unforgettable. It is such a shock to the system. Everything in our body winces, our eyes tear, our nose runs, and our stomach goes into a seizing revolt. I tasted aquavit for the remainder of the party, and throughout the next day. Just the thought of it made me gag. I spent many subsequent nights plotting my revenge, but alas, my longing to get even with Ivan came to know no definitive plan or result. He had gotten me good or bad or whatever, and the tale of my slugging down this bitter brew would become a part of family legend.
When bitterness sets in emotionally, or enshrouds us spiritually, it is just as vile as the taste of aquavit at ten years old. Bitterness is usually the result of being betrayed, badly disappointed, treated unfairly, or facing series of jabs to the soul that leave us gasping for air. Bitterness is both a brutal and haunting taste, as well as emitting the putrid smell of something gone bad – both are seriously sour.
All of us have known days of bitterness, when we can’t catch a break, are overwhelmed by hardships, ripped open by doubts that cut a wide swath in our confidence and courage, and we are left hanging by a thread against the wicked winds of Life. Each of us had gone through a span of time when we are caught by a storm which leaves our ship battered and ravaged by raging winds, taking on water and ready to sink.
I believe a good chunk of my faith in Jesus Christ is rooted in his experience and understanding of all the ingredients of bitterness. Being persecuted by family and friends and communities he trusted. Being lied to and betrayed. Having his very existence denied, and being tossed into the hands of seemingly evil fate. Jesus was repeatedly subject to degradation by those who claimed to love him. His bitterness, “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?” was a brew made from the most common yet cursed ingredients. It must have broken his heart. and demolished his trust.
Bitterness is a bruising battle. It is hard to keep up one’s energy or excitement or enthusiasm, let alone spirit or soul, when tasting the cruelest Life has to offer – indeed, especially if it emanates from friends. The bruising of our soul leaves us aching and sore, ready to weep, and irritated to the depth of our being. We too wince all over, as if we had been forced to swallow whole lemons. Life can be damn tough, so very difficult, and there are those periods of time when we simply feel like we are enduring a Demolition Derby.
I also have come to suspect that bitterness frequently is transformed into high anxiety – waiting for the bomb to drop. When we grow in our belief that we are the victims of repetitive bad luck, or have been chosen to be the scapegoat, or have a growing suspicion that we simply cannot catch a break, then anxiety has found the crack through which it can gain access to our soul. Anxiety is the fear of everything, and a sense of dread of what may come next. It can be both irrational or totally rational, and usually is a mix of each. Anxiety is fear without an object, while bitterness is the belief if something bad is around the corner, somehow it will find us.
After my uncle Ivan’s horrid and hysterical prank, my Grandmother came up to me with a sugar cube, and told me to suck on it. It did not offer an elimination of the bitter taste in my mouth, but it certainly offered some much needed help. So it is with spiritual or emotional bitterness, we may need a dose of Life’s sweetness: doing our favorite things; getting away from it all; indulging our yearnings and having a few days to do nothing at all; and giving ourselves a free pass in the guilt and shame department. Just as a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down, a swig of happiness or joy, when we can find it, will be of immense relief.
Life’s sweetness is not as hard to find as we think, even from the perspective of a bitter eye. Somehow we know we know where to look, and how to make a few good things happen. It may be nothing more than making a call to a good friend, a hot shower, a long walk, or prayer. Little cubes of goodness can make the difference. The bitterness certainly can remain on the tongue and the memory for quite some time, but it helps knowing we can “suck on a sugar cube or two” when we need to.
I have lost two wives. I have recently lost my two best friends, both in their early sixties. As a pastor, I have conducted literally hundreds of funerals. One would think I hold a Ph.D. in grieving and being heartbroken. I should be an expert, right? Wrong! There not only is no such thing, but grieving always arrives fresh and ripe and robust and ready to knock us to the ground. Grief never ever loses its power. Its clout is incessant and eternal. No matter when or where or whom it chooses, it can snap a heart in two in a moment’s notice, on a whim, or out of nowhere.
Our lives are a litany of loss, and it seems logical to think we would become better and better at it. We never do. When we strive to control it, it breaks loose and romps through the streets of our soul like a Pamplona bull. If we feel it has moved on like a quirky gypsy, think again, it will just put up its tent in another sacred backyard spot on our heart. Just when we declare ourselves to have moved on, our grief will move right back in, stick outs its tongue, and wag its finger at us for bad human behavior.
The power of grief is enormous. It is a grand canyon of higher and lower education of the human spirit. It reminds us of our complete insignificance, while telling tales of how each of us will never be forgotten. As our hearts lay shattered upon the floor, we will ironically notice there is a missing piece, and we will begin to search high and low for this remnant of our history. We will finally understand fully just how much a single moment of Life matters. As we cry buckets and barrels of tears, and fear they will never cease to flow, we strangely feel reborn, baptized like the Wicked Witch of the West, and freed of the task of ever being nasty again.
Grief is our tutor and our mentor. It is that good friend who will tell us the bald and bare naked truth. It is the frame to our life’s painting, giving it perspective and depth and brightness, and even worthy of being museum hung. Grief breaks the human heart and readies it to receive the great gifts of compassion and concern and care, and the miracle that is remembrance. Grief will kneel down and sweep up all the pieces of the heart, and begin the painstaking process of gluing all the bits back together, simply by doing it day after day after day until the work is done.
How do we heal from grief? Grief is its own healer. It is a process, a journey, a course. We must ACCEPT IT. There is no way to go around or over grieving. There is only the messy slog through its swampy terrain. Yes, there are snakes and crocs and mosquitos the size of Utah. Yes, it can ruin any day at any time and explode a moment of joy into one of enormous sadness. It is just that moody and it plays dirty. It simply will not leave us alone, and will tease us and poke and prod us into submission, like an older sibling tickling our feet.
We are not meant to like grieving, nor relish the experience of having our hearts broken, but we must maturely receive and learn the many lessons from those experiences. Pay attention. Notice every word it has to say. The Word of God is spoken flueantly by grief. Listen up. Listen hard. Hear the gospel truth which will nail your heart to higher ground.
If we are smart, or wise, or even both, we will choose to EMBRACE grieving, like the Jew who invites the grief in to their lives in order not to waste so much time trying to run away from a much faster runner. By embrace, I do not mean enjoy. I mean to love your grieving. It is not your enemy, and even if it were, we have been taught to love that too. Our grieving will tell us again of our hopes and dreams and priorities, while reminding us of who and what matters, and how to find purpose and point in the mayhem of our days. Grief, more than anything else, will encourage and enable us to grow up and change and mature. Grief enables us to become the creatures God created us to be – wonderfully and wildly human.
Lastly, GIVE IT TIME AND IT WILL HEAL ON ITS OWN … often when you least expect it …usually when you have given up completely and surrendered. But, remember, you will bear scars, the infection may reoccur, and relapse is normal and necessary and a major aspect of all true healing. Relapses are not signs of weakness or fragility, but just God whispering to us to get back on our knees for a bit, reconnect our souls to the Spirit, and cease from trying to play God once again.
There is no possible way to live without grieving, nor without having your heart broken. It is a requirement of the human condition, and a necessity of maturation. Most of all it is the primary way humans learn to be human, and being human is the will of God, for God knows we spend a lifetime trying to be everything but human. God cherishes and adores us and created us human so that we might know and witness and believe in the magic and mystery and miracle of being alive. It is a big price to pay for admission to this game of life, but it is indeed the one thing which guarantees it will all be worth it – in the end.
Trying to teach or even say anything about grieving or the breaking of the human heart, feels as futile as trying to talk to a teen about sex – which is the spiritual equivalent of giving a fish a bath. There is really no need to pontificate much, as Life teaches the course, and sadly but sanely, yes sacredly, there will be many courses offered, and fortunately there are no grades. You get an “A” just for showing up. Being present is the only course requirement. No matter what, you are guaranteed to pass, as the teacher knows full well you did your best.
I cannot imagine an experience more unsettling or upsetting than being genuinely lonely or lost. Either experience can be terrifying, or at least quite overwhelming. Each is a state of being out of control. In some ways it might be akin to being thrown out of a plane without a parachute. While hurtling toward the earth, flapping our arms and legs wildly, we are simply shocked by our total inability to help ourselves, or so it seems.
Over the past forty years of being a pastor, I would characterize my counseling or pastoral care as being dominated by these twin issues. In recent years they have become even more prevalent. I have met with countless people of all ages who express a deep despair fueled by their loneliness, or a sense of being lost on Life’s already difficult journey.
Surprisingly, many of those who complain of being quite lonely, were also individuals surrounded by people, often popular and well liked, and who would describe themselves as extroverts. Nevertheless, their loneliness blanketed their days, and stemmed in large part from the absence of genuine intimacy, a perceived lack of being understood or respected, and the suspicion of being either used or assumed. Loneliness seldom has much to do with being alone, but rather is a spiritual state of feeling invisible either in a crowd or at home.
Women have a much easier time saying they are lonely. Many women feel their role as caregivers and a nurturing presence has devoured their identity and destroyed their individuality. For men, the loneliness often appears to be a detachment from their real selves, as if their need to prove themselves to be real men has kept them from sharing that which might create the very intimacy for which they yearn.
To a great degree, I believe loneliness is not the result of a lack of being loved, but rather, a failure to find a love which is committed and deep and willing to explore the many questions and worries of our lives. People may know they are loved, but express not feeling known or understood, or questioning if what folks respect is truly who and what they are. In a culture where image is everything, people long for something deeper and fuller and more authentic. Love is not enough. Love which is a discipline, or an art, is what most folks truly desire. They want someone to keep working at getting to know them. They want to know their tears might roll down someone else’s cheeks.
I was six and I clearly remember running toward my favorite amusement ride, “The Scrambler”, at the Labor Day Festival at Douglas Park, never even noticing that I had lost track of my Mom, Aunt Karen and my cousin Gary. When I turned and realized they were no longer with me, I still can feel that panic. I froze, and within seconds erupted in sobs. Within a couple of minutes and having endured the empathetic stares of many adult eyes, I saw my Mom come sprinting toward me. The relief was just plain staggering. Knowing you are truly lost, even for just a few minutes, is the experience of a vast and powerful sense of being in danger or without moorings.
I don’t feel I am exaggerating when I say our entire American culture is lost. I do not believe we have any idea who we are anymore, where we are going, or what motivates us. Ours is a culture weighted down with too much phoniness, too much deceit, and way too much lying of all kinds and sizes. We call ourselves a nation of progress, and yet seemingly have no idea as to where it is we are headed, or why we wish to go there. We claim to be the nation of the good life, when the good life has absolutely nothing to do with goodness. We speak of old fashioned values with great fervor, but we only talk the talk, and clearly fail to walk the walk.
We are a culture and a people without roots, grounded knee deep in the muck and mire of a society addicted to stuff, and wondering hopelessly where all the meaning and value has gone. I endlessly hear and see folks claiming to be quite happy and successful and enjoying their lives, but there is something off, way off, as if down deep we don’t even care about what we create, or who we truly are. There does not seem to be a real belief in just who we’re meant to be, nor a hope in hell of bringing heaven to earth. We are seemingly adrift in a sea of anxiety, being pecked away by the rabid beaks of terrorism, and running in circles on our way to nowhere.
Being lonely and being lost both emit a deep and moaning sigh. Both express our need to slow down and dig deeper. We are weary of shallow, and sick to death of fake. We want relationships strong enough to endure conflict, tension, or the passage of time. We want to feel at home again, with sturdy roots, and a sense of being called to a particular purpose. We need depth in all facets of our lives. We presently move too quickly, ripping through our days and losing track of where we wish and want and need to go. We just yearn to know our calling in Life, how to find eternal friendships, and finally laying down roots in a place and with a people where we know we belong.
Lily Tomlin once said that even if we win the rat race we are still rats. Beings a rat is a lonely existence, and one which is headed nowhere other than getting lost in a maze of sewers. We need to be humans who can love and be loved deeply, intimate, creative, courageous, and willing to go deep, creating lives of substance and significance, and choosing to make a difference. When we can make a difference, we solve both issues of being lonely or lost, as at last we are doing and being someone who truly does matter.
When the chores and demands and obligations of Life keep increasing, and the rewards and gratifications keep decreasing, these are the ideal conditions for becoming burned out.
When the once roaring fire in the hearth is now no more than a puff of smoke, this is the context for burn-out.
When you feel hopelessly stuck, marooned in a malaise, and could care less, you just might be burned out.
Burn-out is real. It means that the soul has become an absence. It has disappeared or gone into hiding, and the desire to make or create anything has evaporated like a morning fog. Burn-out is a state of mind and heart. The mind is a tsunami of anxiety and worry. The heart feels broken or withered or both. Burn-out is not the human condition, but a condition modern Americans frequently create unaware.
Burn-out may not kill you, but it sure can contribute to your poor physical or emotional or spiritual health, and it can indeed kill the spirit. It encourages a spiritual paralysis, a lack of point, purpose, or hope, a marching in place in quicksand, and the pure futility of going incessantly in circles.
One sure sign of being burned out is to be easily and frequently irritated. We see our tempers flash for no reason, and we dwell on the smallest slight. We’re always feeling betrayed or let down or punished for no reason, and paranoia is a word we know hovers overhead. We plot revenge. We long to get even. We yearn to push someone down to lift ourselves back up. Like dry brush to a flame, being burned up only accelerates the fury of being burned out. The madder we get, the more our soul is being scorched and charred.
Being simultaneously burned out and up is a sure sign of worshipping at the feet of the triune God of PERFECTIONISM, PEOPLE-PLEASING, and PERFORMANCE. The more we strive to do it all and be it all and keep the dozens of balls in the air, the more furious we become at the chasing after wind, and the more irritated at ourselves for the stupidity of trying to do what we know cannot be done. This is the ramming of the head against the proverbial wall, until the head aches so bad, we cannot see where or why we are going.
There is a severe slump & slouch to a soul carrying the weight of the world. There is a grimace on the face, and the look of being ready to explode at any moment. Most of all there is sense of a spirit in ashes, a smoldering spirit, a hope in tatters, and desire that is in decay. Burn-out and being burned-up is a lethal combination, if not seeking to snap the body with stress, it is busy trying to devour all our joy.
How can we heal the soul being burned alive by excess expectation? By eliminating some of those expectations. We can choose to rest and relax, or add the kindling of being kind to ourselves. We can even be so brash as to use the bellows on the spiritual fire, and actually ask for what we need, or shockingly ask for assistance.
We can keep it simple. Take a good long walk. Listen to good music. Engage in chasing beauty around, or having a lovely meal with friends, where the conversation just might have some meaning. We can swim or dance or play a game or sport. We can savor the offering of a gift to someone, or making a phone call to a long forgotten friend. We can lose ourselves in a good book, or TV series, or meditation, or taking a drive about the countryside. You know the drill. Taking care of the spiritual fires must become a daily discipline.
Daily devotions will help tremendously. Take some quiet time, be still and serene, choose a sacred spot you love, and be there with your Self and your God. Do some solid and deep spiritual reading or reflection. And pray, pray a lot, pray without ceasing. Pry open your soul to the fresh air of the Word of God, which is always whispering in your ear that you are cherished and adored and beloved.
I further recommend counseling or therapy or guided meditation or yoga or 12 step groups or anything else which promotes and prompts you to pay attention to the state of your soul. Be aware of the state of your fire. Know how and when it needs immediate attention. It does not need to always be a roaring fire, but don’t let it become a dimly burning wick either.
Please also remember this, prolonged anger is always defeating and damaging to the soul. It is a wasting of time and talent and creative energy. Yes, anger can jar things loose, or light a spiritual spark, or get rid of some unhealthy toxins, but it can also bury us alive under an avalanche of negativity and cynicism. Anger should never become your mode of operation, or your daily fix, as addiction to anger only breeds contempt for Life and the eventual selling of the soul.
Blue --a powerful and paradoxical color. Earth is often referred to as the blue planet. Sea and sky dominate its swirling mass. Cobalt and cerulean and azure blues can take your breath away. Copenhagen and indigo and navy and royal are capable of inciting gasps of awe and wonder. Ice blue, baby blue, and all blues dipped in neighboring greys, can captivate with their soft sweetness, and their stately exhibitions of serenity.
And yet, all blues, even a tiny patch in a wild winter sky, can also swarm with sadness. Blue is the color of nostalgia and remembrance and longing. Blue best expresses the soul’s yearning for meaning and purpose and point. Blue, by far and away, tells of a soul confused or lost or lonely, a soul sighing with the yearning to understand and know, and a soul seized by the brevity of time and Life and Self. Blue is indeed the color of both sacred and sad.
I find it easy and common these days to see folks whose very being bears witness to sadness. They seem detached and indifferent, overwhelmed and on edge, and they have eyes which are always scooting or staring. We all at times wear a shroud of sadness, or a swirling cape of the blues. Our lives are a litany of loss, and a shrinking of value, along with the futile chasing after the winds of fame and fortune and celebrity. Deep muddied blue is the color of cynical.
Most of our sadness is quite real, only a smidgen is a shameless pout or an adult tantrum. We are sad because Life and our lives can be so damn difficult. We rarely ever get a break from grieving. Our doubts are bloated and our hope emaciated. We look hard to locate enthusiasm and excitement, but our days often feel flat – like a line on a heart monitor.
We have known so much brokenness. Dreams ripped to shreds, health worn to a frazzle, relationships faded and frayed and feuding. Families like shards of glass from a once proud piece of crystal, accidentally, or maybe not, knocked to the floor. Whole communities and churches wither like dried up river beds, cracked and creviced and parched from a lack of love and mercy.
We must embrace the soul’s sadness, or those times it is rocked by the blues. They are a must of Life. They are required by the contract we call being human. Yet, we must never surrender to them as the foundation or base of our being. Sadness and the blues must not become our most dominant feature, or a daily assumption or prediction. Sadness and the blues must simply be one of the songs our soul sings, or even wails, often late at night and eerily alone.
At times we must be courageous enough, or creative enough, to choose to replace our sadness with gladness, and transform our skies from limp lifeless death white into bright beautiful blue. We do have the capacity to signal the soul that it is high time we smile, or dance, or sing, or hope, or play, or give, or serve, or attend the party -- which is held every day. Joy is always lying in wait, even in the midst of the bleakest landscape, and happiness is not only just around the corner, but hidden out in the open all the way around the block.
What makes the difference is quite simple. Paying attention, choosing to notice the life we are living, and being aware of how we wish to mature on a daily basis. It is true that Life shocks us with a sucker punch now and then, or shows its ability to knock us flat, but most of the time Life is not a battle or a war. We are just being asked to show up, be present, be awake and alive to the infinite possibilities, and to decide FOR the day. It is a day the Lord made, and we can rejoice and be glad in it. If we are looking and seeking and listening, we will locate those moments which make it so worthwhile.
A child giggles from their toes to the top of their head. Dark clouds strike a pose for the sun, so that it can reveal God like shafts of liquid light. A single tulip sits in a vase on a table, and an old woman reads her Bible. Someone tells a joke, and bursts the bubble of despair and replaces it with child-like silliness. A first snow tumbles and twirls down, and coats the earth in the hide of a zebra. Spring casts a spell of lime green and pretty pastels. Autumn ignites the fires of nostalgia and announces the need to give thanks and remember. And on we go…moment after moment…day after day…Life remains a spectacular ordinary miracle.
Listen closely to the sighs of your sadness. They may tell or tutor you on what you are missing, or needing, or secretly desiring. Feel those blues in your bones, and know their wisdom. Loving and living and believing are all scary journeys, and we cannot emerge from the march unscarred. But choose, yes choose, to grin at the Grace of it all. Find the speck of goodness or kindness which arouses your hope. Dig down deep for the will and the want of actualizing your dreams. Be calm in knowing you are never alone, and your God or Higher Power will carry you through the toughest times of all.
We all know what it feels like to be physically exhausted. Our bodies communicate our state of depletion to us. We can hardly keep our eyes open. We ache all over. We are either drenched in sweat or stress. We yearn for rest, and long only to lie down.
Being weary is different than simply being very tired. Though it often includes many of the characteristics named above, being weary is much more about the state of the soul than the body. When we are weary we lack excitement or enthusiasm, and we feel unable to enjoy anything. Life has become an endurance test we already know we will flunk. We fail to see the point or purpose, and yes, we do feel weary of the whole damn enterprise.
Weariness is the state of the soul when it is on empty. What is missing is meaning and value and hope, most of all, we sense a hovering hopelessness almost all of the time. Being on empty is about feeling abandoned by God or a Higher Power. It is the presence of grief, but what has been lost is the Self. When we are weary to the point of emptiness, we feel more like a carcass than a spiritual being.
We all have a coping capacity, which varies from individual to individual. What does not vary, is the reality that there is no underground spring which feeds this well of coping. When the well runs dry, well, another one must be dug, or we must refill it. Nurturing the soul, or refilling it, or keeping our coping capacity high, is where our culture fails us miserably. We live in a culture which crazily tells us that we can indeed do it all, and keep all twenty balls in the air, and that we never need to rest - we are machines which simply need to be plugged in, but to what?
Ours is a culture void of Sabbath. We are a society frightened of silence, stillness, solitude, and thus woefully out of touch with our souls or our God. We lack serenity as a people, and this is the result of taking no time to reflect or renew or refuel. We need to play, or re-create. We need to stop trying to do it all, in order to do or be something which truly matters. We see rest as laziness, and a schedule so packed we can hardly breathe, as a sign of being a success. Our culture may see us as successful when we function as a hopeless workaholic, but to our Higher Power, we have sacrificed our very own significance.
How might you replenish your coping supply? When do you feel the greatest satisfaction? What are you doing when you lose track of time? What gives you gooseflesh or a lump in the throat, or moves you to tears? When do you feel the fluttering breeze of happiness? When you can answer these questions, then you will know how to fill yourself up. Ironically, the key to getting spiritually full is most often rooted in DOING MUCH LESS in order TO BE MUCH MORE.
By the way, your body will warn you when the soul is running dry. We have a body of knowledge which teaches us all about how to maintain our spiritual balance, which is another way of saying to avoid letting the tank hit empty. Our body will get anxious, feel overwhelmed, experience paralyzing anxiety, and sense being stuck. Our bodies will function like live volcanos, erupting often, and blowing off hot air in adult tantrums. We will complain we just don’t feel like ourselves, or are getting sick again, or want to run away and hide. Tears and angry outbursts and swarming sadness are the warning signs of a soul nearing depletion.
God will help us heal the hurting soul, but will only meet us half way. Like a good therapist, our Higher Powers expects our investment and involvement and interest. We must be on board in the effort to fill up the soul.
Remember, God is a God of Grace, and that all of Life is Grace. God has no problem asking us, even encouraging us, to INDULGE ourselves in fun and joy and rest and relaxation and doing absolutely nothing. God wishes only for us to enjoy the day, to receive the present as a present. God calls upon us to heal our souls by claiming we are a child of God, already worthy of being cherished and adored.
In an obscenely obsessive compulsive materialistic society, hell-bent on seeing us run ragged trying to make a name for ourselves, our Higher Powers point out that we are already named and claimed by a gracious God, and that we are at our most powerful when admitting we are never in control.
We heal ourselves of weariness and emptiness when we live the Sabbath principle, and take time strictly to be with our soul and our God. A whole day--when was the last time you took a whole day to be intimate with your spirit and Spirit? When you heal the soul by filling it, you will once again enjoy your days, and become excited and energized, and lo and behold, ready and able to make someone else’s day!
A good God may have dug the first well for us, but we are entrusted with keeping it in good shape. Our souls must be nourished and refreshed. Our souls must be taken care of by individuals wise enough to know they cannot be perfect, are not meant to keep everyone happy, and are entitled to take time to SIMPLY AND SOLELY RECEIVE.
The firm foundation of spiritual nurturance is the acceptance of being a human being. Nothing more or less, but wonderfully made. It is God’s will for humans to be human, and when we hit empty, it is from trying to be anything or everything but human. Playing God is a weary business.