When I overanalyze, I’m sorry

This bothers me: when people describe to me a problem they are having, I try either to analyze why the problem exists or to help them find a solution. Then I overhear someone else say the kind, compassionate things I should have said, and I kick myself up and down the stairs the rest of the day.

Really, I want to be kind and compassionate. I hunt for the right words to say and apologize when I don’t find them. No doubt part of my problem is a Mastermind (INT-J) personality which is automatically analytical and problem-solving even when other people do not want that kind of response. I want to be classy like John Steed, but always I end up as Mr. Spock instead.

The reason this bothers me is that, when I am being the analytical Mr. Spock, other people get the impression that I don’t care. Nothing could be further from the truth! I would not be analyzing their problem if I did not care. To me it seems like I am reaching out with a helping hand, but to them it feels as if I am building a wall between us.

Whenever this has happened, I feel disappointed in myself. Understand that, in my household when I was growing up, “disappointed” was a code word for strong disapproval. In some ways, hearing Mom or Dad say, “I’m disappointed with you” was a worse punishment than being spanked or sent to my room. So when I say that I am disappointed with myself, I really mean that I am very angry at myself.

At the same time, I am very sensitive to the people around me. If someone is having a bad day, my first reaction is to blame myself. The other person might be fighting off a cold, or getting over a morning argument with a spouse, or focusing attention on a project, but part of my brain is asking the rest of my brain, “What did I do that was wrong?” I’ve been like this as long as I can remember. As a result, I have learned to ignore that feeling, the same way I ignore the feeling that I’ve forgotten something important each and every time I leave the house.

This probably means that at times I miss a chance to apologize when I should apologize. Or I miss a chance to say a kind word to someone who needs a kind word, apart from the fact that their problem is not my fault. Failing to say the right thing, though, bothers me less than saying the wrong thing. I cannot seem to remember that generally people want sympathy and support more than they want solutions.

Some people say that this is a male/female divide in western culture. They say that women talk about their problems to receive emotional support, while men talk about their problems to find solutions. Therefore, when a man hears a problem described, he looks for a solution; when a woman hears a problem described, she offers emotional support. That description is simplistic, of course, although it may contain some elements of truth. In the end, though, it seems more like a stereotype than a helpful explanation.

But, there I go again. Even dealing with my own feelings, I am looking for explanations and solutions. I am asking how I can change myself so I can offer support and sympathy and not be the analytical Spock who doesn’t help at all. At this point, I am who I am, analytical mind and all.


One thousand days of darkness

It seems that the Mayans were right. They predicted that the world would end in December 2012. (OK—I know that they did not really predict that. Play along with me here.) They only missed by a few weeks. I guess it was obvious to them that the ending should take place at the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. To come so close to the actual end so many centuries before the actual event is incredibly accurate prognostication.

The second half of 2012 would have been rotten for me even without a Mayan prediction. Murphy’s Gremlins were unusually busy from the end of the summer through the autumn. Automobile breakdowns required towing and expensive repairs, computers failed and needed to be replaced, appliances broke down and needed repairs, and all of this cost money. I am still paying interest to the credit card companies because of the bills that had to be paid at that time.

But money is only money. When the darkness fell, it was about more than mere dollars and cents. Gradually, increasingly, nothing seemed right with the world. Life had lost its meaning. Existence was just a matter of getting from one day to the next.

I had been through dark times before. When I was in school, there were weeks when I was discouraged and the whole business of life seemed pointless. Somehow, without anybody’s help, I pulled through those times and kept on going. Later, when work got busy and did not let up, I felt the darkness again. One friend sent me a box of chocolate which helped—the thoughtfulness and the candy both brought cheer. As the years went by, I noticed that December and Christmas always had their layer of gloom, and I considered the possibility that I had developed Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I fought back with Vitamin D pills and exercise. Somehow I survived.

Then came a time when I was riding a wave of success. My writing was getting published, and I was making public appearances, even on television. Other people were interested in what I had to say. I wondered at times how long the good feelings would last and how bad the crash would be when it came. For more than a year, life seemed to be good, and I was basking in the sunshine with pleasure.

The crash happened. The good feelings fled. I was left with a sense of irretrievable loss. When I thought things might be improving, they failed to improve. Songs on the radio reminded me how miserable I was. I was able to write about it, and that helped a little, but only a little. It seemed that the sun had gone out of my life forever.

I handled my depression poorly. I self-medicated by drinking, which of course only made things worse. Finally, after two years of darkness, I was honest with my family doctor about what was happening inside me. He started me on medication, and I also began counseling. Finally, after a lifetime of struggle, I was able to admit that I am anxious and depressed and cannot handle these afflictions on my own.

Are things better today? In some ways, yes. The medicine and the counseling are helping. Progress is happening. I am aware of people who struggle with far greater afflictions than mine. After all, I have not missed a day of work through this time of darkness. I have kept it hidden from most of those who see me several times a week.

Today marks one thousand days of darkness. I cannot say that the darkness ends at one thousand days; there may be a day one thousand and one. With God’s help, though, I am stronger than all this garbage. I can and I should pull through and find my way into the light again.


Seven goals, inspired by The Cloud of Unknowing

Now that I have begun learning about mindfulness, I have decided to read some of the classic Christian texts on meditation, starting with The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth century European work. As I read, I am trying not to read from a historical perspective or as literature, but really to take to heart what is written. At the same time, the question keeps appearing in my mind: Why is American Christianity lacking this perspective?

Part of the answer to that question, I think, is that American Christianity is largely shaped by the Protestant movement. Even Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox churches in North America bear a Protestant flavor. From the beginning, the Protestant Reformation concerned itself with individual salvation—answering the question, “What must I do to be saved?”—rather than concerning itself with the relationships stressed in medieval mysticism. Although the Pietist movement had potential to return Protestant Christians to a mystical or mindful relationship with God, it gradually evolved into Methodism which again seeks to answer the question, “What must I do?”

American Christianity has several stands of tradition that are entwined with the various denominational and nondenominational labels. One is the Charismatic or Pentecostal movement, which emphasizes exercising various gifts received from the Holy Spirit. Another is the Social Gospel, which emphasizes Christian activism in the community and in politics, seeking to make the world better for all people, especially the poor and needy. A third is Evangelicalism, which continues to focus on individual salvation and on mission work to bring the Gospel to all people. A fourth is the Success Gospel, which promises health and wealth and comfort in the present world. None of these is open to the kind of quiet mystical meditation described in The Cloud of Unknowing. Perhaps this is why so many active Christians seek additional help for their lives from yoga, from mindfulness, and from other somewhat mystical practices inspired by religions of southern and eastern Asia.

I have no desire or intention to start a new Christian movement in the United States. (The Church of Salvageable? Ugh.) For my own personal practice of Christianity for the rest of the year, I have set seven goals.

1. Worship services will be attended, not for me to be uplifted or entertained or educated, but for me to spend time in the house of my God and among the people of my God.

2. Personal devotional time, consisting of reading the Bible and of prayer, will be conducted, not as an intellectual exercise and not for self-improvement, but for bonding. The purpose of prayer and of Bible reading will be to spend time with the Lord, improving our relationship.

3. I will seek to be mindful of the presence of Jesus in every part of my life, not just at church and in personal devotions. I will strive to remember that, when I drive, Jesus is with me; whether I am at work or at home, Jesus is with me; whether I am alone or among other people, Jesus is with me. My goal is not to improve my behavior out of fear of his disapproval and judgment; my goal is to assure myself that I am not alone, no matter how alone I often feel.

4. I will seek to be mindful that whatever I do for another person is also service to Jesus. Customer service is not something I do for a paycheck, but it is part of making the world a better place for other people, for the glory of God. Courtesy on the streets or in the store is not merely good manners, but it also is part of making the world a better place for other people, for the glory of God. Kindness and honor to the members of my family is not just an obligation, but it is part of making the world a better place for other people, for the glory of God.

5. Whenever I am anxious, troubled, or discouraged, I will breathe slowly and deeply while meditating on Psalm 46:10 (“Be still and know that I am God.”). I will do this, not just to control or escape my feelings, but to use that unsettled time to draw closer to God.

6. Whenever I experience pain, whether it is physical pain or emotional pain, I will let that remind me of the pain Christ experienced on my behalf. When enduring physical pain, I will remember the physical tortures of the cross. When thinking of emotional pain (such as the memory of a broken relationship), I will remember Christ’s pain at the broken relationships that have separated the people he loves from him. Any temptation to dwell on my own problems, or to feel abandoned in my suffering, will be resisted by turning the suffering into an opportunity to share, if only in some small way, in Christ’s suffering.

7. Because this is my personal experiment in Christian mindfulness, I will make regular reports by means of this blog to let you know how things are going. If any of you care to join in this experiment, please also make comments on this blog to let me know how things are going for you.
God bless us, every one.


Five movies for Independence Day weekend

On this fourth day of July, citizens of the United States of America celebrate the independence of our country and remember the freedoms we have as citizens of this country. Americans celebrate with parades, picnics, fireworks, and other traditional activities. Here is a list of five movies that I like to see around Independence Day. Not that I claim they are the best possible movies or that every American should see them. I don’t even watch all five every year, but it’s a safe bet I’ll be watching one of these five movies while others are out watching the firework show.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): Actor James Stewart and director Frank Capra combine to bring viewers this movie about America’s government. Jeff Smith, played by Smith, is a simple honest patriot. Named by the governor of his state to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate, Smith finds himself confronted with cynicism and corruption in the nation’s capital. Some elements of the movie fall short—for example, it’s hard to believe that a patriot like Jeff Smith would need a lecture from his office secretary about how a bill becomes a law. Still, the unabashed patriotism of Smith and his supporters—along with the tour of Washington DC’s landmarks—makes this movie a refreshing holiday treat. Some American politicians objected to portions of the movie that depict corrupt politicians (although no states or political parties are named), but the movie was banned in the totalitarian countries of Europe for its celebration of democracy and the power of the common man.

Music Man (1962): Made from a successful Broadway musical, this movie is not about patriotism or the Fourth of July so much as a celebration of the heartland of the United States and the people who live there. Harold Hill is a traveling salesman who markets musical instruments, lesson books, and uniforms, promising to form a boy’s band, even though Hill cannot read a note of music. Marian Paroo is the town’s librarian and must choose whether or not to reveal his scam. With songs including “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Til There Was You,” Music Man joyfully depicts the state of Iowa in the summer of 1912. The dance scene in the library is particularly not to be missed.

1776 (1972): Also made from a Broadway musical, this movie uses song, dance, and acting to depict the writing and acceptance of the Declaration of Independence in the Second Continental Congress of the North American colonies of Great Britain. No movie is a purely accurate source for history lessons, but this movie comes close. The actors truly live the parts of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the other founding fathers of the United States. At times humorous and at times gloomy, 1776 does not back away from the harsh realities of war and of American slavery. In the end, though, it is a glowing endorsement of that document created back in 1776 which gave the founding principles of a new nation.

Moscow on the Hudson (1984): Robin Williams plays a Russian musician who defects to the United States while his employer, a Russian circus, is performing in New York City. A landmark movie that can help younger people understand the issues of the Cold War, the movie shows the differences between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but it does not retreat into jingoistic propaganda. Life in Russia has joy as well as gloom, and live in America has sorrow and fear as well as freedom and opportunity. Several other powerful actors depict the population of New York City, a group of people who have traveled from all over the world to take part in the American way of life. Though the film is not entirely family-friendly, it remains one of the clearest proclamations of America’s values during the Reagan administration.

Independence Day (1996): An obvious choice for the Fourth of July, Independence Day tells the story of earth being invaded by hostile aliens from outer space. Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith, and Bill Pullman all shine in their roles of survivors who must confront and defeat this unexpected threat. Goldblum is especially effective as the environmentally-conscious computer expert who perceives the threat earlier than most people and eventually helps to create a solution. Doses of humor spice the action of this movie, including some lines so subtle that they might not be noticed until a second or third viewing. The President’s speech to his troops before the final battle is particularly uplifting and memorable.

Happy viewing, and happy Independence Day!