My weapon of choice against depression

Depression: probably the most common mental illness today.

“Mental,” as if depression is just in your head, affecting your thoughts. Which it does, of course. It affects all your thoughts. It becomes your thoughts until you can’t tell the difference between what you’re thinking and what depression is thinking for you. It wants you to believe that the negative thoughts it feeds to you are all true, that you’re observing life as it really is, that you’re not actually looking at life through a darkness that filters out the light. That the light no longer exists.

Depression wants you to think that your life is impossible. All of it. The pile of laundry on the floor, the grocery list, the phone call, the possibility of love or human kindness. And not just think it but over-think it, over-analyze it, as if thinking about it times a million will somehow solve the problem instead of turning it into a giant monster that eats your brain and spits you out.

Depression is a mental illness first. It starts in your thoughts. But it’s not just a mental illness. It’s a spiritual illness. It’s an emotional illness. It’s a financial illness.

Emotionally, it bribes you with the possibility of taking away your negative feelings, and then it takes all your feelings and crams them into a dark dungeon so that even when it seems appropriate to have a good feeling about something, you can’t, because the feeling won’t show up. Depression convinces you that feeling is too dangerous. So you have to stop feeling, right? Seems logical, right? Just think about it. Of course feeling is dangerous. Of course you want to stop feeling angry and sad and jealous and hurt and betrayed and weak and full of rage. Of course you want to make those feelings go away. Just think about it. Rationally. Depression can take all that away. Because depression is oh so rational.

Depression thinks those thoughts on your behalf and as soon as you sign up for the plan, it stuffs the pain away, not so it will never hurt you again (because it will always find a way to resurface in a thousand different ways) but so you can’t effectively process it. The pain doesn’t go away. It only rots in the dark. It becomes toxic, like mold, like a tumor. It doesn’t die; it only feeds on itself and grows twisted in the darkness.

Depression wants me to think that I’m thinking my own thoughts and making my own choices, but it’s manipulating me. It’s deciding for me, what to think, what to feel, and what not to feel.

Depression is mental and emotional and also physical. Not only because it starts in your brain which is a physical part of you, but because the brain affects how your body fights disease, affects how you feel emotionally and physically, and affects how you take care of yourself. Time to make lunch? Not so fast, cowboy. Let’s not attempt the impossible here. The leafy greens in the fridge are dead because you’re too stupid to eat them, you dumb shit, and the leafy greens at the grocery store are on the other side of a chasm so great that you couldn’t possibly cross it today. Especially when there’s that bag of chips on the counter that you got at the convenience store, the only place in walkable distance today, and at least that will keep you from starving and give you just enough energy to maybe do that pile of laundry or get your fat ass to work for another day of paycheck so you can buy another bag of chips tomorrow. Or at least you can go for the Chinese or whatever puts broccoli and other greens into the food that your body will accept at this point.

Except it’s not your body deciding what to eat anymore. It’s the depression telling you to eat the grease and the salt and the sugar and the caffeine and all the addictive stuff because let’s face it, why eat for health and long life when your decider is sick and life isn’t worth living anyway?

So depression is a mental, emotional and physical illness, but then it infects all your relationships. It convinces you that people don’t really like you, because you’re not lovable, so you shouldn’t bother those people out there. And even when you know that people love you and enjoy your company, it just feels like too much work to plan something and show up and care.

I still care about my friends and family, but depression does not. Depression seriously impacts my ability to care about myself or anyone else. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a bad person because I don’t put in the effort to care enough about others the way I should. And depression loves to remind me of how I’m not doing what I should.

So depression infects everything in your life, and then kills your finances. It takes away your desire to work, and often takes away your ability to get out of bed and show up for any work at all. That happened to me in 2010. Then when enough people are unable to work, we call it a capital-D Depression, Depression that affects everyone. Now the good times are not only gone – it feels like they’re never coming back, as if you no longer have a choice in the matter, because you’re just a financial victim like everyone else, and the Depression is a cold dark blanket over everything that makes you believe your work is worthless, not worth a dime, that nothing you do will ever make the world bright and solvent again.

Or depression lets you keep working, but affects your finances in other ways, such as expensive addictions that form as false relief.

Depression is all those things – emotional, financial, mental, physical. Depression takes your mind and tells you what to think, then it takes your emotions and tells you what to feel and not feel, and it takes your finances in a fit of addictions and inability to work, and it takes your body, and then it tries to take your soul. Your will to live. Your power to choose.

And maybe it succeeds for a while. It takes your soul, your spirit, your will, as if they were just neurons firing in your pre-frontal cortex where your executive functions do their neurotic things. It takes your neurons and your neuroses and your pre-frontal cortex, because yes, depression is a mental illness and it is in your head. It takes control of your mind and gives you thoughts about how bad everything is. War, abuse, crime, injustice, the melting of the ice caps, the end of life as we know it – all really good reasons not to get out of bed in the morning, when you really think about it. And depression never stops thinking about it. It thinks enough about these things to convince you that taking action is pointless.

Many of the treatments psychiatry has come up with for battling depression involve trying to think different thoughts. It’s a mental game. Unfortunately, when the brain is broken, it’s hard to use it to fight the depression that it’s creating for itself. Some people find relief in these psychiatric head-games. I have not.

One possible way out that I’m exploring now is not to think about it, but to find my soul again, my will to survive, not in a more successful thought pattern carved out from neuroses and neurons but in my gut, my heart, the seat of my soul. My mind has been taken hostage, I can’t think clearly, my willpower seems broken by addiction and fatigue, and my soul is buried under 30 years of muck but it’s still there and on a good day, I can still get to it.

And maybe, like at the end of the Matrix trilogy, I’m in a dark muddy hole and depression has taken over my mind and is beating the crap out of me, and it looks like I’ve lost and will never win again. And depression is demanding to know why I still fight. Why, why do you do it? Love? Hope? Forget it, they don’t really exist, not for real, if you really think about it, so give up, it says. Happiness doesn’t last. Life isn’t worth living. So why do you do it?

And I’m down for the count in that dark hole and there’s nothing left to fight with. Many days, I have to admit, the depression wins and I reach for a distraction. But on a good day, I wake up just enough to reach for my core, the force for good that depression or so-called rational thought tells me doesn’t exist (because it’s just a thought, right?).

But no, your heart is not a thought, it’s a muscle the size of your fist, and when it’s the last thing you got, you got to fight back.

On a good day, I remember that depression never really took away my spirit; it just locked it away for a while and told it not to come out. But my will is still my own. Depression likes to remind me every day that I’m a victim. In moments of clarity, I don’t believe those thoughts.

outofdarkness

This muscle in my chest is getting a work-out. It’s struggling. It’s pushing against decades of brokenness and the weight of a thousand thoughts of distress. This heart is trying to stand under the weight of everything that depression has thrown on top of it for 30 years.

Right now, I’m exercising my right to choose. I’m writing this down even though I want to go back to bed. I’m choosing because choice is the only thing I have left.

Choice makes us human. When life seems impossible, we can choose to attempt the impossible. Humans have done it before, whether it’s the four-minute mile or standing in front of a hundred tanks in Tienanmen Square or staying seated on the bus while an angry white man threatens to have you arrested. Why? Because we choose to.

I ended my first draft of this a couple weeks ago on the high note of personal choice and the triumph of the human spirit, as if I’m some kind of goddamn hero for beating depression. But I haven’t beaten depression, and ending this on a high note would be another lie.

And if I hide what’s really going on, because I’m ashamed, that just leads to more depression.

And if I think I can be a hero and fight this battle alone, I will lose. Going alone is playing into the depression trap, where depression convinces me that no one can help me, that I have to do this alone, that no one else cares, or that relationships aren’t worth all the hassle and drama. That lie kills thousands of people every year.

I can get up a thousand times, but if I do it alone in the dark, it becomes worthless. Human beings have evolved in community with one another. Deep down we all know that solitary confinement leads to death.

So I need to reach out. And so the choice to stand, to resist the darkness, has to be one of reaching out, of connection, because despite all my best efforts and despite what my ego and depression tell me, I cannot do this alone. I need people with all their messy side-effects. I cannot do this alone.

And I have to be real about it. If I try to fit in with community by pretending to be who I’m not, that is not real connection – that is still hiding, still isolating my true self behind a mask.

When I can simply be myself in a community of people that accept who I am, that strikes a huge blow to depression. The trick now is… how do I do that? I guess I’ll need to try it and see what happens.

I have no grand finish to this. I haven’t figured out how to beat depression once and for all, only how to cope a little bit, and even my coping mechanisms are pretty amateur.

So I’ll end this with a song. I hope you connect with it in some way. I did.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pC3IrqUpm9U

Posted in faith, growth, healing | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The Clown Who Lost His Nose

Once there was a little clown named Chuckles who liked to laugh and tell jokes all the time. He was very silly and everyone liked him because he made them laugh, and everyone loved to laugh. He even had a bright red nose that he wore with pride.

Eventually, the day came when the clown looked at the bills piling up on his dining table, and he decided it was time to get a job. He looked in the Help Wanted ads for clown jobs, but those positions were already taken by clowns with much more experience. He saw lots of ads for accountants and truck drivers, but very few for joke-tellers and entertainers.

When the bills could wait no longer, he took a job as a clerk at a big corporation. They put him in a cubicle and made him add numbers up all day. He was not allowed to wear his red nose to work, but secretly he told himself jokes while he was working, and when coffee break came, he was the one making everyone laugh in the lunch room.

A year went by, and Chuckles found himself in the same job. Although he still liked to tell jokes, he shortened his name to Chuck so he could fit in better, and he kept his nose in a drawer at home most of the time.

Soon he found himself becoming very serious. He didn’t notice at first, but the demands of the job made him think seriously a lot more than he was used to.

Other things happened that made him think seriously. There was a big tsunami in the Pacific that killed 100,000 people. He got dumped by his girlfriend. He had arguments with people at work. There were wars in the Middle East. And then there was a big recession that left a lot of people without work, and afraid for their futures.

Chuck felt very sad about all these things. He experienced many other emotions as well, such as anger, frustration, disappointment, fear and loneliness. He started to realize why not everyone laughed at all his jokes. He started to understand how non-clowns thought of the world. He felt sorry for them.

He wanted to do something about the world’s problems, but he didn’t know how. So he kept working and paying his bills and he did the best he could with what he had.

One day he went to get his bright red nose out of the drawer so he could wear it to a party. But the nose was not there! He searched everywhere, but the more he looked, the more he could not find it. He had to go to the party without the nose. He didn’t have a very good time.

Chuck never did find his nose that day, or the next day, or the day after that. He became more serious. He worked hard. He started avoiding parties and he wrote dark poetry and watched the 6:00 news with a feeling of anger about all the injustice in the world.

One day, Chuck had had enough of all the pain and despair. He decided to go on a Quest to find the answer to all the world’s problems.

He started with the local library. He checked out a hundred books that all claimed to have answers to all the world’s problems, and when he got to the end of those, he checked out another hundred books. It took him a long time to read all the books. He also attended seminars and workshops that also claimed to have all the answers. He thought long and hard about all the answers, and he started putting them together in his head, and he tried to practice some of what he had learned. He started to feel a little better. It got easier to get through the day. He met some nice people and started to go out more again.

But he knew his quest was far from over. Even though he was a little happier, and his relationships improved, he felt a hole in his heart that would not go away. He knew that this hole was somehow connected to all the problems in the world, and if he could fill the hole, he could help others fill the holes in their lives.

One day he got a mysterious phone call. The caller was an old man who seemed to know everything about Chuck and his quest. He instructed Chuck to go to a certain special mountain in a far-away desert. There, he would find the answer to the world’s problems.

Chuck was nervous about the trip, but he knew he had to go. He researched the location and made travel arrangements. A few weeks later, he was on a plane.

Once in the hotel in that far-away place, he could hardly sleep, he was so curious about what he would find. Would it be a mountain of gold that he could use to buy food for the hungry and houses for the homeless? Would it be a World Peace for Dummies book? Perhaps an elixir that would cure any illness and make people happy? What could it possibly be?

The next morning at dawn, he picked up his rental car and drove out over the desert highway to find the mountain. He could see it a long way off. It took him two hours to drive to the mountain. At the end of the road, he found a sign that read, “No vehicles past this point.” So he collected his backpack with food and water, and set off up the mountain trail.

Only five minutes up the trail, he encountered a gatehouse. The gatekeeper came out and stopped Chuck. “No packs on the trail,” he said.

“This is my food and water,” replied Chuck. “I need it to survive.”

“Don’t worry about that,” replied the gatekeeper with a smile. “Your survival will be looked after. But you cannot take baggage with you on the path. You have to leave your baggage here.”

Somehow, Chuck knew he could trust the gatekeeper, so he laid his pack down and continued on the path.

An hour later, just as he was becoming quite thirsty, he found a stream, with cool, clean water. He sat and drank from the stream for a few minutes, and when he was rested, he continued on his way.

Another hour later, he started feeling quite hungry, tired and weak. Just then, a man came down the mountain path with sandwiches and fruit. He stopped and shared a lunch with Chuck. Chuck was very grateful, and asked how he could repay the man, but the man replied, “Just get to the top and find the answer, and then everything will be all right.”

Another hour later, in the early afternoon, he came to a fork in the path. There was no sign. He didn’t know which way to go. Just then, a girl came down the right-hand path singing a song. She stopped and greeted Chuck with a smile. “This is the path you want!” she told him, and continued on her way.

The suspense was really getting to Chuck. He didn’t know how far it would be or what he would find when he got there. Just then, a grey-haired lady came down the path with a big smile on her face. She was carrying an apple pie.

The lady stopped and sat down with Chuck to share some pie. It was one of the best apple pies that Chuck had ever tasted. His curiosity growing, Chuck asked the lady what she had found at the top of the mountain.

“Why, this pie, of course!” she replied.

Chuck’s heart fell. “Pie? The answer to all the world’s problems is pie??”

The lady laughed. “You’ll see!” she said with a wink, and then continued on her way.

A bit further up the path, he came upon a young man carrying a wrench. Chuck stopped him and asked him what he had found at the top of the mountain. “Why, this wrench, of course!” he replied.

Again, Chuck’s heart fell. “A wrench? How can that be the answer?”

The young man laughed. “You’ll see,” he said with a wink, and continued on his way.

Further up the path, as the afternoon sun beat down on him and sweat poured down his back, he encountered a young Asian woman coming down the path. She seemed quite happy. He asked her what she had found up there, but she was completely silent, and replied only with a smile and a little bow, and continued on her way.

Finally, just when Chuck felt his strength giving out, he found another stream, and stopped to drink and rest. When he looked around, he saw that the stream was coming from inside a cave. There was also a light coming from inside the cave. He went inside to investigate.

There, inside the cave, was an old guru, dressed in a robe, with a long grey beard. There were cupboards lining the cave walls, and a little fire in the middle, providing light and warmth inside the cool darkness of the cave. A small table was set out with tea and refreshments.

“Well, hello there, Chuckles,” the old guru said with a bright-eyed grin. It was the voice from the phone call! And sure enough, there was a phone by the man’s side, with a list of numbers to call.

“Nobody has called me Chuckles in a long time,” Chuck replied. He sat down and immediately felt at home in the cave.

“Pity,” said the old guru, offering him a plate of biscuits. “But then, that is why you are here, is it not?”

“I’m here to find the answer to the pain of the world, and my own pain. But all I’ve found is this cave, and smiling people coming out of it with pies and wrenches. It makes no sense.”

The guru laughed. “It doesn’t always make sense to our heads,” he said. “Because our heads are too little to find the answer. You must find the answer with your heart. And sometimes, that can take a long time.”

“Then is the answer here or isn’t it?” Chuck asked, worried that his trip may have been in vain.

“Yes,” said the guru. “Yes, it’s here and it isn’t.”

Chuck just stared at the man.

Then the guru got up and went to a cabinet. He ran his finger over a series of drawers, until he found the one he was looking for. “Tell me,” he said at last, “Who are you and what do you do?”

“My name is Chuck and I’m a clerk for a big corporation,” he responded.

No you are not!!” the guru barked with a voice louder than Chuck thought possible.

Startled, Chuck asked him, “Then, who do you think I am?”

The old guru pulled open the drawer, and said, “The answer is in here.” And with that, the old man pulled out a bright red nose – the very nose that Chuck had lost so long ago.

“Here you go, Chuckles – here is the answer.”

Inside his heart, Chuckles could feel something suddenly growing very big. His head was telling him, “This is ridiculous! This isn’t the answer! The answer should be serious!” But in his heart, he knew this was it. He didn’t know why he knew – he just knew.

“The answer,” the guru continued, “is not in what you do – it’s in who you are. When you find who you truly are, then the answer of what to do will come to you – as sure as the nose on your face!” Then the guru stuck the bright red clown nose right where it belonged.

Suddenly a laugh escaped Chuck’s lips. And he knew he wasn’t Chuck any more – he was Chuckles, the Clown!

“I’m so sorry I wasted all those years of unhappiness,” Chuckles told his new friend. “But I’m so glad I found my nose again, so I can go back to who I was!”

The guru laughed, too. “Oh, but it wasn’t a waste, and you will never go back to who you were!” he said. “You see, those years of heartache were necessary for you to learn compassion for other people in the same condition. If you had stayed a clown, and never experienced anything else, your understanding would be limited. Through your experiences, you learned to feel so much more.

“And now, you can live as the clown who understands what it feels like to be human.”

Chuckles laughed with joy as he pictured the life ahead of him. He knew that there would still be problems, but he also knew he could find his way through them. He just had to follow his nose!

Then a question popped into his head: “Guru, why did I have to come all this way to find something that I had lost at home?”

The guru grinned. “Because if the answer had been easy to get to, you never would have believed it!”

Returning down the path, he was able to help others the way he had been helped. A couple people looked at him the same way he had looked at the man with the wrench – with worry that the answer would be too small to help. After all, what could someone with a red nose or a wrench or a pie do to solve all the world’s problems?

But he knew, as sure as the nose on his face, what the stream of people up and down the mountain had taught him: that it’s not just the wrench or just the red nose that solves the world’s problems, because there is no one solution. The answer was found in the great diversity of people all doing what they were born to do: to fix machines, to feed people, to build things, to help people think, feel and laugh.

Chuckles went on to help a lot of people laugh – and to feel. And because he understood their frustration, loneliness, despair and anger, he was able to bring laughter and light right into the heart of real life – not avoiding the pain, but dancing in the middle of it.

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Drowning in Accumulation

Last night I had one of those dreams where you wake up and realize: “That wasn’t just about billiard balls, was it? That was my life.”

I am about to start a game of pool with a friend. I rack the balls, but there are extras on the table. The extras look similar to the usual spots and stripes, but they’re a bit different – a rainbow colored stripe, or one size too big. I sort them out, and start to arrange the proper balls in the rack when I realize there aren’t enough normal ones, and still too many misfits. More sorting.

Next time I turn around, there’s a whole box of billiard balls to sort. Still too many wrong ones and not enough right ones. Pretty soon the dream becomes more about sorting boxes than about racking up a game of pool. The boxes are full of balls – some as small as marbles, some as big as grapefruit, and none of them the ones I needed. Then I’m pulling chess pieces out. Really? Chess pieces? I comment to a passerby about how ridiculous this got. And yet, I don’t quite realize it’s a dream, even though it has turned into a kind of biblical account of the 5,000 game pieces from one box.

Okay, enough back-story and wake up already.

As I laid in bed trying to shake the feelings of frustration, I realized that the dream was a reflection of the frustration I’d created in my life.

Too much crap and clutter. Not so much in physical objects – I’ve done a lot of clearing – but rather, clutter in my habits and distractions. I over-complicate the things I want to do. Buying a gift? It has to be the perfect gift, so I turn it over in my head a few times before taking action. I don’t like any of the options, so I keep adding more options. Then I set that aside, and go tackle something else, like a script for a stage play. Except I don’t have any fresh ideas, so I turn on a movie to look for inspiration. After I’m done the movie, I pick up a Neil Gaiman novel. Next thing you know, I’m in the middle of a Doctor Who marathon on Netflix. And there went my Christmas break.

My head gets more and more cluttered with ideas and unfinished tasks (not just the script and the gift now, but dishes and laundry and going for lunch). It keeps piling up. I’m never ready to start the game. More sorting. Ever more sorting, pondering, planning, rejecting, considering.

The only thing that will clear this clutter is action – to do the thing on the list, stroke it off and move forward. It might not be the perfect thing, the perfect gift, or the perfect paragraph of prose, but it will be a shot anyway. I’d rather take a shot and try to sink something than keep sorting the billiard balls all day.

Question for you: What’s one shot you can take right now?

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Blame

When I experience frustration, anger, disappointment and fear, I often look outside myself for the cause of it. I start to tell myself stories about where that pain originates (because I can’t believe that it comes from within). I blame others, whether they are directly affecting my experience or not. I could blame the guy who cut me off in traffic, or the co-worker who is late getting his share of the work done. I could also blame people in other countries who are doing things to hurt people I’ve never met; I experience that injustice within me, feel the pain, and blame those people for my pain. I can blame individuals, or whole groups of people (like Republicans, for example).

This is how wars start. This is the root of all kinds of phobias.

What if I could allow the thought, just for now, that my pain comes from the stories I’m telling myself about my experience, and not from the experience itself? What if I could give up trying to blame and manipulate other people, because playing the victim does nothing to alleviate my pain?

What if I could allow the thought, just for now, that other people experience pain similar to my own? What if everyone in the whole world experiences pain and frustration and fear just from being human? What if, inside, we’re all suffering to some extent?

Could I then, instead of seeing others as the source of my pain, see others as people who are suffering just like me? Could I see them with empathy and compassion? Could we work together to alleviate our collective suffering?

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Burning a dead man

FADE IN

A man (39) kneels in the gravel by a shallow river, under a pedestrian bridge, in the middle of a nature reserve, on a sunny summer day.

CLOSE-UP ON MAN’S HAND

He digs a watermelon-sized hole in the gravel using a sharp rock. Beside him, two big shopping bags, one cloth and one paper, are stuffed with stacks of hand-written documents.

A young family walks by, enjoying this holiday weekend. The girl (4) stares at the man clawing in the dirt. Her father (35) tugs her along.

The digging man glances up at the family, then returns to his task. He reaches into the paper bag, which has two broken straps, and pulls out a lined piece of paper, covered both sides in handwriting. He crumples it up and puts it in the hole. He crumples more paper until the hole is full. He pulls out a barbecue lighter and pulls the trigger. Nothing. Again. Nothing.

MAN: Come on, come on.

He grows impatient. A tiny flame finally appears. His pursed lips crack a hopeful smile. Soon, the breeze whips the flames to consume the paper. The man crumples more pages and pushes them into the flames, then jerks his hand back as the flames singe his fingers. He adds more paper as fast as it burns. He ignores another family that walks by, and they ignore him.

24 HOURS EARLIER

The man sits on a couch in his highrise apartment, downtown in a major city. The open windows let in traffic noises and a beam of sunlight, which illuminates two stacks of one-inch binders on a coffee table. The man reads one of the binders, scanning the words, flipping several pages at a time. The words increasingly disturb him. He fans quickly through the rest of this binder, tosses it to the floor and grabs another…

That man… is me.

Those binders are my journals from 1989 through 2004: 15 years (60 pounds) of anxiety, philosophy, theology, commentary, short fiction, unsent love letters, and utter crap. (The journals since 2004 are still in a box somewhere.)

I confront them because the clutter in my apartment has been bugging me. As my desire for simplicity has grown the last few years, the journals have morphed from a treasure chest of personal history into just another box of old papers. I have lugged those books through about a dozen moves since I wrote the earliest of them, and now they just take up valuable space in a life that I want to make lighter.

The last time I considered getting rid of them, my ego vetoed it. Those journals provide a written record of some formative years of my life. I needed to hold onto something that could confirm my identity after the memories fade. I needed to have something to say: This is where I came from. These are the stories I’ve written. These are the people and issues I’ve cared about. To say: My life has meaning. I got somewhere, and this is how. (And to my biographers after I become famous, here is some great raw material.)

But when I went back to re-read them, I found page after page of narcissistic ponderings I could no longer identify with: college crushes, old ideology, and long-forgotten anxieties over schools and bosses. My gut tightened with each page, the shame of the past coming back to haunt me.

Those journals now reflect a persona I’ve outgrown – a past I no longer need. They say you’re supposed to live in the present, and I couldn’t do that without forgiving and releasing my past. To find who I really am, I need to let go of the false identity of my past, and wipe the slate clean. Finally, to be honest, I need to forget about anyone wanting to read my biography, because I probably won’t be famous.

It took me a while to let myself erase the record of my past limitations, but I’m ready now.

Next up was the practical part. How would I get rid of the journals? I could simply throw them in the dumpster. I could recycle them. I could burn them.

Yes, I could burn them, releasing the old energy in the heat of the flame. Yes.

A romantic vision came to me: Sitting in the mountains, tossing the pages one by one into a roaring campfire, each flame forgiving a mistake or a belief that I’d held onto for too long.

And Saturday, August 31, was Burn Night. My friends down at Burning Man would light up a huge wooden Man as a symbol of releasing the past, burning an authority figure – whatever each of the 70,000 participants thought it represented.

I’d been there a few times myself, experiencing spiritual renewal. Burn Night would be the perfect time to release my past in flames.

For practical reasons, I decided to perform my little ceremony in a city park during daylight hours. Now, a summer long weekend is not a great time to find a public firepit. They were all booked with family barbecues. So, Plan B: I found a little barbecue stand and burned a few pages in there. It didn’t feel grand and romantic like my earlier vision. And the barbecue quickly filled up with ash. I needed another plan.

Plan C: I knew an isolated spot a mile or two down the trail, by the river, away from the crowds, in an adjoining nature reserve. I gathered my 60 pounds of memories and hiked out.

By the time I got to the base of the hill, halfway to my original destination, the straps on the paper bag started to go. The bag was not built to carry heavy documents long distance. It was built for raspberries and tortilla chips.

Meanwhile, with all these setbacks, my romantic notions of ceremonial release in a spiritual renewal quest were coming undone like the straps on my bag.

Plan D: Pull off the trail at the first bridge over the river. I found a spot by the river’s edge, crumpled up a few pages into a pile, pulled out the barbecue lighter, and pulled the trigger.

Nothing. Again. Nothing. Again again again. Nothing nothing nothing.

Another plan. Another plan. Another plan.

I was starting to snap like the straps on my heavy fucking sacks of shit from hell.

Matches. I’d brought matches as a backup. I’m a smart guy. Always prepared.

The first match flared… and died before it touched the paper. Second match: Flare. Out. Third: same. Four, five, a dozen more matches, all died cold at the paper’s edge.

It must have been the breeze.

I needed… I didn’t need another fucking plan. I needed a way to get that damned ballast of shame out of my life. And I needed to do that before lugging those damned bags back up that long lonely hill back to my car.

There was no way I was going to carry that burden back with me. I needed to release it. Immediately. Without a doubt. Forever.

But it wasn’t working this way. I needed a windbreak. So I found a dry, gravelly spot away from the river’s edge, and a triangular rock that I could dig a hole with.

I knelt under the bridge, on the bare gravel, stone-age tool in hand, and, like some crazed killer, began hewing out a pit in the dirt, to bury the body of my past.

FADE IN

Craig (39) is more determined than ever to ditch the past. Clawing at the dirt under a bridge, no longer caring about the perceptions and judgments of strangers, his knees dirty and his mind focused, he digs a grave.

In that hole, he… I… am finally able to bring a flame to that paper. I shove the next few pages in quickly, trying to keep the flame lit and the paper from blowing away in the breeze. I singe my fingers.

I need another plan, but that’s okay. I’m on the right path now. I can beat this. I find a good stick, and stab those pages into the flames so they light up and don’t escape.

I bayonet them like dying enemies on the battlefield.

Old college crush? Die! Teenage angst? Die! Useless ponderings about a god I thought I knew but totally didn’t? Die, die, die. Burn up all the old ego crap, the religious certainties, the victimhood, the blaming of friends and family, the insane depression and suicidal thoughts, the pain, the confusion, the small-minded theology and misdirected philosophy. All sacrificed to the flames, returned to primordial energy.

As the hot sun moved through the sky, I realized it would take hours to burn through all of it. I couldn’t burn the massive amounts of paper quickly enough in this small hole.

After two hours, I had emptied and burned the paper bag, and started on the cloth bag. I was too tired to finish burning it all in one afternoon, but not too tired to carry the lighter bag back up the hill, just one last time, to get rid of it safely somewhere else.

Another plan? The confidential shredding bins at the office. Perfect.

I shouldered the remainder and hiked back. Lighter this time. Bearable, for a little while. I drove home, showered the clay and ash off my body, and carried the old baggage three blocks to the office.

The last of the papers were dumped unceremoniously in a bin full of obsolete engineering drawings, misprinted spreadsheets and last week’s meeting minutes. Finally. Gone.

It turned out in the end that I didn’t need some big fireworks ceremony with cheering crowds to release my past and live in the present with less baggage. I just needed to let it go.

Because I could not carry that heavy burden up one more goddamn hill.

Posted in Ego, growth | 1 Comment

Arguing (a)theism

I found a Facebook group tonight that posts quotes about the intelligence of science and the stupidity (or worse) of religious people. I kind of agreed with a bunch of things they said. For example, I do believe that the universe has been around for billions of years, and was not created in a single week by some omnipotent being less than 10,000 years ago. But I won’t go into the rest.

Generally, I don’t put energy into trying to prove or disprove the existence of God in any particular form. I have a conscience that tells me what’s right and wrong, and when I follow my conscience, I feel better. So I try to do what feels good. I figure, if there is a god who created me and created my conscience, then this is the best course of action anyway. And if there is no god, then what better life than doing what feels good to me and feels good for the people around me? I can’t imagine that any sane god would have created people that feel bad when they do something right. And if god is insane, then there’s no point in doing what that god wants.

At the same time, I have lots of friends and family members who believe very strongly in God and in Jesus Christ. I no longer share their beliefs, but we love and respect each other anyway. I’m fine with that. They don’t need to convert me, and I don’t need to convert them. Besides, I suspect there is some kind of Spirit out there, some kind of God, although I don’t know what that Spirit looks like. So I have nothing substantial to convert anyone to even if I wanted to.

And the religious people I know are still good people. They are kind, and try to do the right thing. They try to live good lives with good morals. We’re kind of the same that way. They aren’t hurting anyone with their beliefs, so I don’t need to tease them or argue with them or make them forsake their beliefs. It’s a free country, and if their religion inspires them to be good, kind and generous, then that’s fine. Let them follow the teachings of Jesus, who wanted everyone to be kind and loving and generous and nonjudgmental. There’s no harm in that.

I think when atheists loudly proclaim how stupid religious people are, they are thinking of the minority of Christians who like to picket funerals and protest in the streets and go knocking on doors trying to convert their neighbours. It seems to me that the majority of Christians are just like the ones I know personally, who quietly and humbly seek to do what their consciences tell them to do, to live lives of gratitude and love. If they are wrong about where they are going after their lives are over, well, at least they tried to make the world a better place while they were alive.

I’m not saying that militant atheists are wrong for calling out the idiocy of unchecked dogma. As I said in an earlier post, we need that thoughtful voice of opposition, the voice of reason in a world where so many people are unreasonable.

I guess we’re all just doing the best we can with what we’ve got.

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Flood of compassion

Over the last week, my city of Calgary, Alberta, has seen unprecedented flooding. About 75,000 people had to evacuate. The downtown core became a ghost town. Major transit routes stopped running. Bridges and train tracks were closed down or even washed out. Some of my friends are still without electricity after seven days. Some people may not be able to return home for weeks, as structures became unsound or unfit for habitation. Cars left in secure underground parking were submerged and written off. So many people lost so much.

I was lucky. Although I live only four blocks from the river, my building is not on the flood plain, and my apartment is on the 26th floor. I had power the whole time. I was inconvenienced with road closures, but not hurt. Although a handful of people died in the flood, it could have been a lot worse. So many of us are lucky in so many ways.

Not only are we lucky that it wasn’t worse, we are also lucky to live in a place where people help each other. Thousands of volunteers have stepped up to help their neighbours in any way they can – offering shelter, food, clothes and help with the clean-up. Many local businesses are donating equipment and supplies. Pump truck operators are showing up to pump out basements free of charge. City workers are pulling double shifts to clean up garbage, communicate information and patrol evacuated neighbourhoods. And the other day, I got to see an entire hockey rink filled with donated clothing and household goods out at Siksika Nation, a Native reserve. I joined dozens of volunteers from all over to help them sort it out.

In the midst of all this disaster and heroism, there was only one news story that shocked me: Cambodian orphans, some of the poorest of the poor, scraped together $900 out of donations they had received, and sent it to Alberta to help us out with flood relief.

Now, it’s hard to write about this, because I have no words to describe the feelings of humility and gratitude that come up.

My first reaction to the story was resistance. Alberta has billions of dollars, and these kids have almost nothing. It’s just not right that we should accept anything from them. We should be giving them money! I mean, while some Albertans have lost so much, the rest of us still have more than enough. We should be able to take care of our own.

Then I realized: This gift is theirs to give. They have the right to give it to whomever they choose. They chose us.

They also have the right to experience the joy of giving. Doesn’t it feel good to give? Why should we deny them that right? Why not let them experience that joy?

Here in Alberta, we get to learn some beautiful lessons from this:

It’s a beautiful lesson in grace. We don’t deserve to receive anything from them. But we did. Sometimes the Universe just throws something extra your way to remind you of the ridiculous abundance that love creates.

It’s a beautiful lesson in compassion. They saw that Albertans were suffering, and chose to do what they could to alleviate that suffering. They didn’t stop to ask how effective it would be. They didn’t ask if we really needed it. They didn’t stop to consider, that if you give money to Albertans, they’ll just spend it on alcohol anyway. (It’s true. We drink a lot.)

Those Cambodian orphans didn’t give rationally. They gave because they could.

Finally, this is a beautiful lesson in humility. If someone who has nothing can give something, then what can I give, when I have so much?

Posted in compassion, gratitude, service | 1 Comment