Sacking the Sorry Sad-Sack Sad

As promised, this begins a new series of posts exploring major shifts in a man’s late middle-age. Hopefully you find yourself here somewhere. 

This post has been a long time coming. Or, to say it differently, I would not have been able to write this until I was able to see clearly what has always been before me.

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Sad clown

An unprepared reading of this post title might leave one with the impression that I’m making light of very difficult stuff. I am a person who has suffered the mental illness of anxiety and depression for most of my adult life. Anyone forced to suffer such an insulting fate understands all that is involved.

This has been further complicated by a certain predisposition of personality. An Enneagram 4INFPLibra/Virgo-artist-mystic, I possess abundant proclivity toward melancholy. It is, for me, a cottage industry. Those like myself for whom daily life is often a struggle, do so under menacing clouds of grey, besodden with delicious sadness. It is a perfect place to hide. From the world. From others. From further anxiety.

From myself.

And that last thing is what I’m after. The immense internal struggles commensurate with complex personality produce a cocktail of impenetrability. Nothing gets in. But nothing gets out either. A bit like being always hungry and constipated at the same time. Different expectations at war with one another.

The result? Swirling clouds fall in on themselves further deepening woe and driving others away. I get to be, simultaneously, the life and death of the party! My winsome whimsy, gregarious grandiosity, and churlish charm act as a dare-to-draw-near and a you-asked-for-it at the same time! A bait and switch that leaves others bemused, sometimes hurt, and me, lonely.

One of the many gifts of late middle-age has been self-acceptance. Dare I say it? Self-love. Egad! To give up all that melancholy for the Hallmark brightness of joy would be tantamount to character mutiny. I’m trading Munch’s Screaming Man for anything Thomas Kinkade.

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The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893

I am positioned for indictment as traitor to the very misery that has drawn so many others here with me!

I am their Captain. I love them. I write for them. I feel for them. I understand them. I am them.

But, what happens when one wakes up one morning to discover that much of the sadness has been, wait for it…chosen. I don’t mean the mental illness over which I’ve had little control and which rarely peeks out from under my medicinal assistance. I don’t mean the vicissitudes of a poetic soul given to flights of fancy and dreaming. Putting words and notes to the hours of a day, promised, unpolished, impolite, but real.

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Cabin by the Lake by Thomas Kinkade

I speak of reaching for something outside the parameters of my own horizon. I speak of faith leaps off cliffs of soggy soil into unknown places. I speak of the Herculean choice to live each day like gift, regardless of emotional fuel to do so or outcomes. I speak of changing behaviours first in a blind hope that experience will follow. I speak here of letting action determine experience, not the endless task of untying mental knots until my world makes sense.

Yeah, like I’ve ever been successful in that.

Anyone who has struggled as I have to even open my eyes some days, let alone prance along to work and be productive, will know what’s involved. My fellow faith friends would likely call this a “return to Jesus.” I love those people. They love me. They help me. They always mean well. And they may well be right.

But it’s perhaps even more elemental than that. Since Jesus dwells within, the need to “return” seems moot. I think it part recognition that I will never untie all the complex chaos sprinting around my brain. It’s far too complex, even for a smart guy like me! I simply stop the endless thinking and ply the trade of behaviour – of doing something a less troubled soul would do under similar circumstances.

Of letting God, and my own soul, sort me out in due time. If this sounds hauntingly akin to “fake it ’til ya make it,” I dare say you are right to some degree.

What if that friend, seeing my confusion, asks me to go for a walk? Instead of politely refusing under the guise of “aw, how trite, you think a walk(!) will cure this?”, I take them up on it. My mind gets to catch a breath while I deepen a friendship.

Instead of isolating myself for days at a time away from the prying eyes of others, I wade into others and let them pry for awhile. Once the lid’s off, good stuff gets poured in. Most days at least.

Instead of succumbing to yet another day of doing nothing, I do one thing on my to-do list. Just. One. Thing. Finish one and two becomes four and a day of forgetting to brain wrestle becomes the greater gift of satisfaction.

Not fool-proof, but dammit, it works! It’s like a slow out-smarting of something too smart to sort out. People who know us, know us because they want to. And, if they want to, it means they’re invested.

I let ’em speak.

Sometimes they’ll come off a bit sanctimonious like Job’s friends. Take the good with the bad I guess. Sometimes their well-meaning suggestions will feel cute next to the towering internal issues confronting me. A bit like offering an aspirin to a guy on fire.

Nowadays, I try to peal what truth I can from those little bananas. 

I don’t know how much of this makes sense. All I know is the smell of change. A slow-burn of transformation that is bringing renewed hope. By means of daily choices, behaviours, most of which feel under-nourished with the accompanying desire to do them, I’m seeing a whole new world open up. 

As campy as this sounds, I’m sacking the sorry sad-sack sad and slowly replacing it with actions that bespeak contentment.

Oddly, it seems to be working.

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Not a fake smile. Really.

 

  

Silent Notes from a Noisy Journal – Into the Fray

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St Placid Priory, Lacey, Washington

Today, it occurs to me how blessed, perhaps even entitled, I am. Sitting here, in this idyllic environment, relatively free of care, well fed and clothed, in a little chapel associated with a Priory, having made my way here with someone else’s money in a new van paid for with our own money (well, theoretically), all to return – freely, and without fear of reprisal – to a local church that hired me and pays my wages.

Who gets to do such things other than the rich, and free? The power-brokers? Those who write the headlines and history books? These things become much clearer in the light of God whose heart beats wildly for the little ones. They also become easier to recall to one’s mind. To remember these basic things in order to bring proper perspective and sufficient context to my time here is now my task. 

Silence. Solitude. Journalling. Reading. Prayer and discernment. Although, these are presently my experience, to a lesser degree I anticipate this to be the case upon my return. It has been good. Very, very good. It has allowed me to slow down, attend the needs of my soul, and to avail myself of the riches of the Lover of my Soul.

As a result however, the greatest takeaway from my time here is this: I do best when staying actively involved in the vicissitudes of daily living, embodying truth. Not just thinking it. I must seek a deep, inner life as I’ve been doing, but one that leads to full engagement. I am not a person who is going to readily make the biggest discoveries from behind monastery walls. Start there? Absolutely. But the field of dreams for me will always be on the field, not in the dreams. It’s hands and feet and kinetic energy I require to keep my inner kingdom alive and growing.

Hence, it is now, as they say, “down to brass tacks.” While in the midst of discerning the movement of God within, weighing consolation with desolation in a balance (thank you Ignatius), this philosopher-poet, Enneagram 4 needs to get real, practical. Perhaps, while doing so, God can more easily steer this spiritual ship to new and expansive waters. The larger call and vocation upon my life will emerge more clearly in the minutiae of the face to face reparté of those who need what I’ve discovered here. It must be in goal-setting and the hazards of life-on-the-ground, where we all must live every day.

Gracious God of small things, help me see what I need to see, so I might become eyes to the blind, voice to the voiceless, and a support to the weary. Speak Lord, for your servant is listening…

 

Glimpses V: learning self-love through self-knowledge

“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

-Jesus

* * * * * *

The most genuine love we can show those around us is to nurture self-love. If this sounds narcissistic, hold your judgment and read on.

I’ve been forced lately to consider some rather disconcerting truths about myself. I often feel a little squirmy stopping to glance in the soul-mirror longer than the space between songs on my iPod playlist. But, to crack our spiritual eggs, God has to play hardball before we smell the omelette of his presence wafting through our life’s kitchen. And, let’s be honest, we generally don’t learn any other way.

The twelfth century French abbot, Bernard de Clairvaux, believed self-love for the sake of God to be the highest of all since it is the best revelation of God’s fingerprint in us and guarantees we have no projections toward or pretensions against which we might wrongly see God. My point is this: self-love develops from a basis of self-knowledge. Lately, one tool God has been using in this process is the “Enneagram” as developed in two books on the subject, The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Riso and Hudson and The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert.

For years now friends have suggested, either openly or subliminally, that I take a look.

A close look.

It’s alright, we’ll wait…

Isn’t it funny how those we know best actually know us better than we do ourselves? Nosy buggers. Obviously they’ve seen something I have yet to see or just haven’t turned to face yet.

In recent years I’ve adopted a greater willingness for such loving intrusions into my psychic space. Why not? It’s going to get dealt with one way or another, right? Why not do it through the more supportive way of loving community? As Rohr makes clear in his book, how we interact with others will contribute to and be impacted by those incremental movements toward union with God.

Let me try to unpack this a bit. For those unfamiliar with the Enneagram, it is an ancient, pre-Christian tool used by the Desert Fathers, medieval Sufi mystics and a host of others in determining the nine primary “Essences.” In Christian spirituality, it was used to help identify our core sins; those pitfalls in each of us that deny wholeness and integration.

The authors are careful to point out that there are bits of all of these in each of us. The freedom comes however in discovering which number, and its accompanying “capital sin”, that best describes our struggle toward self-awareness and it’s end, self-love.

In my case, not one, but two numbers did a brazen Fosbury Flop off the page and down my throat with hurricane-like insistence. I seem to be both a glittering, off-the-charts FOUR (defined as “the need to be special”, or The Individualist), and a cozy, kumbaya NINE (“the need to avoid pain”, or The Peacemaker). Either way it has forced me to address my overriding need to be everyone’s center of attention but not so much that it messes with my “chi.” Whenever I’m not the dinner table centerpiece I will force my way there or look for better prospects.

The flip side however, or my NINE-ishness, denies me full entrance into that hallowed place since, to be there, means the potential for failure, or worse…success, neither of which I care to deal with. Avoidance is my chosen modus operandi. I am good at it.

Very good.

Want to come live with me? Didn’t think so. I wouldn’t either.

It is particularly challenging for guys like me to be “just a part of the pack” when we crave peaceableness, beauty, balance and blustery goodness everywhere we go. How, then, do I also ensure ample amounts of praise, attention and pats of approval on my needy crown? God forbid that I don’t stand out somehow; that I’m not just a little hipper, a little funnier, a little more talented or good looking or profound than the rest. When that happens I ratchet it up a notch to achieve the desired result, often with disastrous consequences. And, to complicate matters, the peacemaker in me loves to live vicariously through whoever happens to be the most interesting or inspiring person in the room, the very person I’m trying to be! Aah, just the way I like it, a confusing nightmare of complexity!

Thanks to the Enneagram, among other things, I am inching closer toward self-knowledge. The self-love part? Not so easy. People tell me they’re not mutually exclusive. At times I have my doubts however as my eyes open ever wider to my blatant inconsistencies and shameless coverups.

But, there it is, my present journey toward self-love. It is coming with the help of the Enneagram and at the expense of a good spiritual chainsaw. Like the Orcs’ insidious intentions in Fangorn Forest, God and I have together hacked and burned and burned and hacked at the forest in my eyes. It is an unwelcome process however necessary.

As I said at the beginning, I’m slowly understanding what self-love can actually mean; the benefits so to speak. Those with whom we must share this life are best served when we work on our own stuff first. After all, nobody wants to be another’s eye-forest lumberjack.