God’s grace is sufficient

The first time I received therapy, one of the main issues I learned to handle was avoiding my emotions. For most of my life, I had believed that virtue consisted of ignoring emotions. Courage, for example, is not lack of fear; courage is doing the right and proper thing despite fear. Resisting temptation is largely ignoring what feels right and instead doing what one knows to be right. Love is not a feeling; it is a conscious choice to help another person, to make that person’s wants and needs more important than one’s own wants and needs, to be a servant to others rather than making other people one’s tools to be used or one’s obstacles to be overcome.

Anxiety and depression, then, were merely bad feelings to be shoved aside. They were impediments to doing what was right, but I could still do what was right despite those feelings. If my anxiety sometime was expressed in outbursts of rage, then that rage was simply a bad temper, one more feeling to try to control. If my depression made me resist getting out of bed or getting work accomplished, I got out of bed anyhow and got my work done anyhow, no matter, how I felt. In some ways, those accomplishments were a noble victory; in others, they reflected an incomplete awareness of my life, a lack of emotional health that was keeping me from reaching my potential.

My first therapist helped me to understand that feelings are important. Feelings are inner communication, warning that something is not right and needs to be corrected. This therapist helped me learn how to recognize triggers that lead to anxiety. Awareness of what was out of balance in my life helped to establish ways of correcting the imbalance rather than muddling through the situation. But being able to list the reasons I might feel depressed in 2020—reasons such as quarantine and isolation, political turmoil, job uncertainty, aging, and changes in the family—were not enough to help me overcome the feelings of depression. They were not enough to stop me from making some bad decisions in response to those feelings.

My second therapist is helping me work toward a new awareness of balance. She is not telling me to ignore my feelings, but she is demonstrating how to make a cognitive response to an inaccurate (or incomplete) feeling. We have discussed some of the typical human responses to stress—seeing only the bad and none of the good, feeling blame for problems over which one has no control, and assuming that things are not going to get better no matter what. One of the most perceptive approaches she has taken is to ask what I would say to a peer going through the same kinds of problems and discouraging situations. What I would say to someone else, I need also to say to myself.

Other factors are also part of the therapy she is recommending. I need to get sufficient exercise, find family members and friends who are supportive, and find ways to relax and recover energy. I pointed out that reading is my primary way of relaxing but also a way of escaping problems and being isolated from family and friends. (I have finished fifteen books since the beginning of the new year.) Because of downsizing of my department at work before the virus crisis, and because of the quarantine we have endured for ten months, I don’t have contact with friends outside the immediate family. Along with ways to balance those limitations, I am also learning to remind myself that “God’s grace is sufficient.” Could I lose my job because of further downsizing, accentuated by the virus crisis? I am doing my work duties to the best of my ability; I have no control over what the administration decides, and God’s grace is sufficient. Do I feel guilty that the congregation I serve is so small and has financial struggles? I am being faithful to God and his Church, and God’s grace is sufficient. Do gloomy Saturdays further deplete my strength to get things done—both necessary things and healthy, helpful things? I do what I can, and God’s grace is sufficient.

I am grateful to my online friends for your prayers and your encouraging words. I am grateful for medications and therapy, blessings from God that are provided for health and productivity. I am grateful that God’s grace is sufficient, even though I often forget that promise and look for something more. I am confident that, with God’s help, I will weather this storm, and that better things are coming. J.

Apathy in the darkness

People say that the two biggest problems facing western civilization these days are ignorance and apathy. How can we confront these two concerns? Frankly, I don’t know, and I don’t care.

In ancient Greece and Rome, a group of philosophers who called themselves Stoics sang the praises of apathy. They insisted that a virtuous person will not love anything in this world too much, not even a family member or a friend. The world, to Stoics, is a bad place, and everything in it is bad. They recalled the words of Socrates, who pictured the death of his body and the release of his soul as a bird flying free from its cage. So, for the Stoics, should be the attitude of every wise man and woman. We should be unencumbered by the things of this world. We should be seeking freedom from the physical world, freedom to become purely spirit, freedom not to care about food and drink, about clothing and shelter, about health and safety, or about any other matter than pertains only to our physical existence in this world.

Already two thousand years ago, a trade network linked the Mediterranean world with Persia, India, and China. Possibly Buddhist teachings traveled along this network, suggesting thoughts to the Stoic philosophers in the West. For Buddhists also seek to be unattached to the things of this world. Desire, or craving, leads to suffering. Learning to live without desire promotes life without suffering. Buddhists do not completely withdraw from the world—they consider proper vocation as important as proper beliefs and proper meditation. But behind all that is proper lies unattachment—freedom from desire for anything in this world, with the expectation of nirvana—complete freedom from suffering and from the burden of maintaining a self-identity.

In the Star Trek world, Vulcans practice the same apathy and non-attachment as Stoics and Buddhists. Vulcans seek to be guided by logic and reason, not by emotion. Scriptwriters could not resist toying with this philosophy, forcing Mr. Spock in one way or another to confront human emotion. Spock struggled to remain faithful to Vulcan values, to be apathetic and unattached, to be guided by logic unclouded by emotion. Doctor McCoy found Spock’s apathy to be cold and unappealing, but Captain Kirk often found Spock’s Vulcan ways to be helpful to the crew and the mission of the Enterprise.

This winter I am starting with a new therapist, hoping to overcome the burden of apathy. My own depression, combined with the challenges of the past year, have left me feeling burnt out and uncaring. The virus crisis, the year’s political chaos, and threats to my own job and income have exhausted my inner strength. Moreover, I have for years been taking medicine to help control my feelings of anxiety and depression. Christmas season was an ongoing struggle—I did not want to celebrate the holiday, and I did not want to spend time with family. I stopped caring about my health and well-being; I was uninterested in taking care of myself. My writing lagged. My personal space became increasingly cluttered and untidy. Even my decision to seek therapy comes, not from any desire of mine to recover, but from the insistence of family members that I need help.

Christians are not meant to be unattached. We are to love God whole-heartedly, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christians are not meant to be apathetic. We are to hunger and thirst for righteousness; we are to mourn our sins and the world’s evil—then we can be comforted and satisfied. Christians do not seek a spiritual existence untouched by the physical world. When God created the world, what he made was good. When the world became corrupted by sin and rebellion and evil, God became a physical being, as human as we are, to redeem the world. He defeated death by dying and by rising to life again—rising with a body that could be touched, that could eat and drink with his disciples, that remained physical and human. He promises his people a resurrection to a new and perfect world where we will eat and drink together at his table and enjoy everything that was good in the first creation.

Not caring is a problem. The loss of emotion means fading into darkness, not walking in the light. Right now, I honestly don’t care, but with help I expect to start caring again. With that change, other parts of my life might also start falling into place, aligning in a way that is right for me and for those around me. J.

Unfinished business

My writing has stalled over the last few weeks, both because of the Christmas holidays and because of the political and social turmoil from our recent election and its aftermath.

In the next few days, I hope to continue my posts on socialism. I have at least five more to write: “education: privilege or right?” “the Cold War and socialism,” “socialism and totalitarianism,” “socialism, capitalism and race,” and, “the freedom of free markets.” I also need to compose a concluding, draw-it-together post. Then I can start editing what I have written, including helpful comments from several of you readers, with the intention of eventually publishing it as a book.

Meanwhile, I have several other books in the pipeline. In 2017-2018, I had twelve posts about the twelve days of Christmas; then, in December 2018, I had a series of Advent posts. I had hoped to combine these into a book last fall, but things slowed down with the other book I was writing. So I edited and printed those posts and used them as family devotions over Advent and Christmas. Now I’ve set that work aside for a few months, but next summer or early fall I’ll pull it out again, edit one more time, and send it to the publisher.

During the quarantine last spring I typed up some presentations I had made in previous years called “Witnesses to the Passion.” Each told the account of our Lord’s suffering and crucifixion from a different point of view: Simon Peter, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, the soldier at the cross, the young man who ran away, and so on. I plan to compose two more presentations—a Temple guard who witnessed the arrest and trials of Jesus and was also posted to guard his tomb, and Thomas the apostle. Then I need a good introduction, and I can send this work to the publisher.

I also have two projects to begin writing. The first will be a series of devotions parallel to the witnesses of the Passion but looking more at items involved in the Passion: the thirty pieces of silver, the crown of thorns, and so on. I have not yet made my list of details to cover, but I hope to have at least forty, to make a Lenten devotional book. No doubt I will share some of those chapters as posts. The second was suggested by a woman in my Bible class. She says I ought to write a book about love: what the Bible means by love, how love is understood (and misunderstood) in our culture, and how to respond to our culture’s distorted versions of love. I’m a bit nervous about that book—it would possibly strike some people as intolerant, which certain people will not tolerate, as we all know. Perhaps that is all the more reason for me to write it.

Meanwhile, we still wrestle with issues related to the election and to the really stupid and futile response last week. Efforts by Democrats and the mainstream media to link every Trump supporter and every conservative to violence in the Capitol could, in a worst-case scenario, lead to repression of the conservative viewpoint—arrests, loss of jobs, being denied access to social media, and the like. With that in mind, I still want to risk two additional posts beyond the socialism posts I have mentioned. One would explore the possibility of the United States turning to a five-party system; the other would analyze voting fraud in the last election and would ask if it was illegal but not immoral.

There’s no telling what the future will bring. But these are my writing plans for the immediate future. J.

False alarms

This Christmas season will be remembered by the Salvageable family as the Christmas of false alarms. It began, not on Christmas Day, but on Sunday December 27th, the third day of Christmas, when the smoke detector in the hallway began to send out intermittent signals that it sensed smoke. This alarm prompted a thorough search of the house—checking all the rooms, even those rarely visited; observing the house from outside, both front and rear; examining all electrical appliances; and even lifting the trap door into the attic to check for heat or smoke. No indication, aside from the alarm, showed any sign of smoke in or near the house or anywhere in the neighborhood. Eventually I set the smoke detector out on the deck, where it rang occasional alarms a few more times before finally settling into silence.

I should mention that the device is not one that needs a new battery every year. It came self-contained, complete with power source, and was guaranteed to last ten years. And, needless to say, the smoke detector is now a few months beyond ten years old.

Two mornings later I heard an odd hum when I got out of the shower. I was concerned at first that something was going wrong with the exhaust fan in the bathroom or possibly with one of the lights. After I got dressed and switched all those off, I could still hear the hum. In short order I traced it to the smoke detector, still out on the deck, and now dealing with moisture from inclement weather. I shook out the moisture, silencing the alarm; then I wrapped the device in a plastic bag and left it on the deck. My plan was to put it into the garbage at the end of the week and then replace it the next time I visited Walmart.

Then the rain came. The bag protected the device for a while, but not for good. Oddly, I heard it at eight a.m.—right after the Christmas carol clocked chimed for the hour. My first thought was that someone in the house had set an alarm to go off at eight, but then I recognized the triple chirp of the smoke detector. So I finally did what had been suggested the previous Sunday—I took the device out to the workshop, broke it open, and disabled it. I had planned to put it, as it was, into the garbage that night to be removed from our property in the morning. But it occurred to me that if our garbage on the curb was beeping, we might worry the neighbors, which could lead to visits from the city police’s bomb squad. Therefore, I disabled the noisy alarm.

This would be the end of the story, but it’s not. Friday night, even as our garbage waited at the curb to be removed Saturday morning, my youngest daughter was told that she may have been exposed to the crisis virus while at work—some of her coworkers had contracted the virus. So she went to be tested on Saturday (locking her keys in the car and needing to be rescued), and I notified people at church and at my workplace that I might need to quarantine. Saturday night my daughter’s test results came back negative, but I had already removed myself from church services this morning. My manager at work had relied my message up the chain of command, but I let him know about the negative result and my lack of symptoms, so I probably will be allowed back to work Monday morning.

These events confirm what I had already been saying—we put too much pressure on the New Year to be a new beginning, an end to our woes from the passing year and a chance for things to be better. None of these events were horrible or tragic, but a few bumps in the road on the first weekend of 2021 remind me that 2020 and 2021 are merely numbers. A new calendar on the wall does not guarantee a better year. And so it goes. J.

Of many books there is no end

  Last night I read Psalms 149 & 150 and also Revelation 21-22. This morning I read Psalms 1 & 2 and Genesis 1-3. These readings are part of a pattern I established years ago, reading through the Bible in one year (and covering the book of Psalms five times each year). Although those selected readings may create an impression that I read the Bible from cover to cover, I actually alternate between the testaments. In January, for example, I will read Genesis, Matthew, and Ecclesiastes. In February I will read Exodus, Hebrews, Romans, and Song of Songs. I try to keep the longer books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) separated from one another; I try to match themes between the testaments as much as possible.

I also read other books: devotional books, philosophy, history, literature, fantasy and science fiction, poetry, drama, and the classics. Since the beginning of January 2001, I have kept lists of books I am reading and have finished. In this way, I have been counting the books I finished each year over the past twenty years.

In 2020, I smashed my previous record, probably because of the virus crisis and quarantine. Between January 1 and December 31, I finished 205 books, far beyond the earlier record of 176. In fact, my reading in 2020 actually increased my twenty-year average from 123.7 to 127.8. And these were not all short and easy books. They included the works of Soren Kierkegaard (which I actually started more than a year ago, so some of them were counted in 2019). They included the works of Leo Tolstoy (yes, even the epic War and Peace, unabridged). They included philosophers Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Rosseau, the Federalist, de Tocqueville, Thoreau, Emerson, and William James. In all, I read roughly 65,000 pages in 2020.

This being the dawn of a new year, I have started my reading list for 2021. I will read several volumes of Martin Luther’s works, will pick up some twentieth century philosophers (including Dewey, Nietzsche, and Freud), will read the works of Mark Twain and those of Kurt Vonnegut, and some other books besides. I will read the five books I got for Christmas this year. I will also read the first twelve volumes of Britannica’s Great Books; I already read the first twenty pages of Homer’s Iliad this afternoon.

I like to read. I like to relive old experiences by reading books I have read before. I like to learn new things. I like to see things from a different perspective. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he had tried meditation, but he found that all the benefits promised from meditating happened for him when he was reading. That is my experience as well.

I tell prospective writers that they need to do three things: they must read a lot, they must write a lot, and they must rewrite a lot. I’ve got the first two skills down pretty well; I don’t always carry through with the third. Reading develops communication skills. It exposes the mind to better ways of expressing one’s self. It improves vocabulary, grammar, style, creativity, and thoughtfulness. More than any other means of communication, reading and writing allows communicators to reflect upon what is being said and to refine and polish the communication before sharing it with others.

For all I know, this could become one of those busy years when I don’t even finish one hundred books. Or I might have lots of spare time and set a new record. Either way, I will enjoy the books I read, and I will benefit from the exercise. Of that I can be sure. J.