“Your dreams are within reach” “Yeah, right”

“Your dreams are within reach.” So promises a sign outside a church I pass every morning on my way to work. Some days I like to think this wish is true. This morning I rather hope that my dreams remain out of reach.

The earliest part of my dreams last night that I remember featured Elvis Presley berating me for the condition of my body. But afterward I was outside my house, trying to set up the grounds for croquet. (When I dream about “my house,” it generally resembles my childhood home, even though that building is no longer standing.) I found that I was unable to place the wickets as I wanted. From that I concluded that the house must have shifted, making the yard smaller. I then tried to hammer one of the stakes into the hard ground. My effort broke open a hole that led to the basement of the house. My father was in that basement, trying to fix the sump pump and not succeeding. The dream concluded with me driving to the grocery store, only to have the car stall at the entrance to the parking lot. By pressing the accelerator while turning the key, I was able to get the car to move forward. With considerable effort, I twisted the steering wheel and coasted into a parking spot. I went into the store and asked to use the phone to tell my family the car was broken. When I dialed, I got the voice mail message, which had been changed by a relative who does not live in our house and had no business messing with our message.

Why would I dream about so many things going wrong in my life? I was jittery yesterday over a number of small reasons. My daughter, who hurt her foot last month in a freak accident, was to have surgery yesterday morning. Her driver took her to the office early in the morning and they waited for a while, only to realize that the surgery is scheduled for Wednesday the 23rd, not Wednesday the 16th. My daughter called home to tell me about the mistake. While we were talking, I heard another voice in or around the house. At first I assumed that two neighbors were having a conversation near the house. When I returned to breakfast, it struck me that the sounds did not resemble a conversation between two people. (You can tell that I was not trying to spy on my neighbors.) For a while I considered that it might be one neighbor talking on a cell phone, but that still didn’t seem to match the sounds I was hearing. When I went into the living room, I found a cell phone on the table that was taking, repeatedly saying “hello” in several different languages. Last weekend my daughters recharged several old cell phones, prior to turning them in for a refund. They did not realize that alarms were still set on these phones. So I’ve been turning off music every morning this week. Hearing unfamiliar voices in the morning, though, left me with a very unsettled feeling.

Feeling unsettled made me overreact when I went on Facebook that morning. I don’t often visit Facebook any more, but sometimes I like to see what family members are saying. One of the first things I saw was a post by my sister which told how to cope with toxic family members. Because I was feeling jittery, my first reaction was to think she was putting me in that category. I know that is not the case; she tends to share things she thinks will help somebody somewhere, whether or not they are relevant to her own life and circumstances. In fact, when I went back later to read the entire article, I could see that it had nothing to do with me. But that’s the frame of mind I was in yesterday, ready to believe the worst about myself from even the slightest and vaguest suggestion.

One reason I am feeling so unstable is uncertainty about my career. I have two or three possibilities before me. One is that things remain as they are. Another is that I might be offered a full-time job in another state. The position has been open for nearly a year, and the committee in charge of hiring has had my name suggested to them, among others. I have yet to hear from them to arrange an interview, but I have good reason to believe that they have not quite reached the step of interviewing anyone yet. If I were offered the job, I would almost certainly take it. Some days I feel certain that it will happen, and I just have to trust God for the timing. Other times I feel as if it will certainly not happen. This winter when I saw cars with license plates from that state, I treated them as a secret message that the job will be offered. But on other days I rolled my eyes and said, “Yeah, right,” when I saw those license plates.

On one of the second kind of days I got a phone call with a new offer. This would be part-time instead of full-time. I would have to keep my current full-time job to have health insurance, but the net pay would increase, even though I would have to drop one current part-time job. The drive to this new position would be about an hour each way, but I wouldn’t have to do it more than twice a week, most weeks of the year. This offer is on the table, mine if I want it. But I don’t know whether to accept, particularly while the full-time possibility remains hanging in unknown territory.

For those of you who are so inclined, I would appreciate your prayers. I could use some wisdom, but also a lot of comfort and inner strength. Also, please pray for both these positions, that they would acquire the servants who are best for them. And while you’re at it, please don’t forget my daughter. She would really like this foot problem to heal, and to do so correctly. J.

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All things considered, I’d rather have the flu

Some days I could almost—almost, I say—envy those people who came down with the flu this winter. And I could almost—almost, I say—offer to exchange troubles with them if that were possible, and if they were willing to make the trade.

With the flu, a person has measurable symptoms such as a fever and a cough. With anxiety and depression, few if any symptoms can be perceived from outside. When one has the fever and cough of the flu, other people are willing to believe what they say about aches and weariness. When one has anxiety and depression, other people are more likely to say, “It’s all in your head,” meaning, “Nothing is really wrong with you.” A few people might think of the flu virus as imaginary and the flu as something that can be conquered by positive thinking. Many more treat anxiety and depression as imaginary and as things that can be conquered by positive thinking.

When someone calls in with the flu, the advice given is usually gentle, kind, and considerate: “Take care of yourself, get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids, and don’t push yourself—don’t try to come back until you are sure you are better.” With anxiety and depression, the advice is usually less helpful: “Don’t mope; don’t feel sorry for yourself; think about other people and their problems; get active and keep yourself busy and your problems won’t seem so big.” This advice shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what anxiety and depression are doing to a person. It is as if a well-meaning person walked up to a paralyzed man lying on a stretcher and said, “Get up and take a walk—it’ll make you feel better.” Only our Lord Jesus Christ was able to cure paralysis by telling people to get up and walk. The rest of us can only make that victim feel worse by encouraging him to do exactly what he wants to do and cannot do. The person battling anxiety and depression is equally vulnerable. He or she wants to cheer up, wants to be active doing useful things, and wants to feel better. Those are exactly the things he or she cannot do. Encouraging such a response to anxiety and depression is like rubbing salt into a wound.

How can you support a person battling anxiety and depression? Let them know that you care. Be available for them, even if they do not seem to want anything from you. Avoid advice about how to handle their problems, unless you are a qualified counselor or physician. Do not criticize them for taking medication or seeking counseling to help with their problems—don’t criticize, even if you are convinced in your own mind that such medicines and counseling services are a fraud and a rip-off. Above all, avoid blaming them even indirectly for their problems. Don’t tell them that their fears and their sorrows are signs that they do not believe God’s promises. Pray for them, wish them peace and calm, and keep on loving them—even when their struggles and their means of coping with those struggles make them seem unlovable.

The American landscape has become friendlier towards people who have limited mobility. It has become kinder towards people who have limited intelligence. Insults are still spoken, and sometimes people resist the facilities that accommodate people with various challenges. We still have a long way to go toward accepting and helping those with emotional challenges. That journey begins with genuine kindness and compassion. J.

O Christmas tree (Oh, nuts)

The story so far:

Last May we had a fire on our property—a good-sized storage shed/workshop went up in flames. The cause was a fault in an electrical outlet. As I was driving home after I got the news, I prayed two things: that the fire would not spread to the house, and that no one would be injured. Both prayers were answered. Less important, but also in my hopes, were the Christmas decorations in the back of the shed. Arriving home and seeing that most of the damage had been in the front of the shed, I continued to have hope for a while longer.

But the fire traveled up from the outlet into the rafters and then was carried to the back of the shed, where the decorations were stored. Most of those boxes were scorched, and many of their contents were singed. These contents included many ceramic ornaments and decorations that were hand-made by my mother, who is no longer around to restore or replace such items. Others were special gifts from other years, or special purchases from past Christmases.

The insurance company was very helpful, paying one company to tear down and replace the shed, paying another company to clean items that could be cleaned, and paying us replacement costs for ruined items we did replace and partial value for items we chose not to replace. Most of the cleaned items were returned to us at the beginning of November. I found the autumn decorations and was pleased with their condition. Now, as Christmas approaches, I am gradually unpacking those decorations and placing them around the house.

Our seven-foot artificial Christmas tree had been on the floor of the shed, underneath the other decorations. The cleaners firmly said—before we even had a chance to ask—that they do not clean Christmas trees. I set the tree up in the driveway to air, then left it in the garage until the new shed was completed. This week I finally brought it into the house. My family and I have looked at new trees in the stores, but nothing available now appeals to us. Many of the new trees come with lights already permanently installed, and the Salvageable family does not work that way.

When I was a boy, my father trained me to decorate Christmas trees with a very high standard of perfection. Every light must be attached to a branch; none of the lights can float in midair between branches or merely lay on top of a branch. They must be installed several inches down the branch so there is room to hang ornaments. They must go deep into the tree to give it full dimensions instead of being a cone of lights. In all my years of decorating Christmas trees, I have always insisted on following my father’s method.

I bought eight new strings of lights, each with 150 bulbs. That’s 1,200 bulbs to be placed firmly on branches. As I put them on the tree, I noticed a faint odor of smoke still lingering in the tree. I also noticed dirt gathering under my fingernails. The tree is fifteen years old, so some of that dirt could be from other years rather than ash from the fire. We bought this tree one January after the previous tree had toppled as my son added trucks and dinosaurs to its decorations. It remains full and lifelike, although five of the branches are held to the trunk by twist-ties. When all the lights were attached, I continued with other duties, such as picking up a daughter from dance class and getting the garbage out to the curb. While finishing the latter task, I saw that all the lights on the tree had gone dark. Not wanting to spend more time on it that night, I unplugged it and left it alone.

The next day it was found that only the bottom string on the tree was malfunctioning. I removed it from the tree and checked carefully for breaks in the cord, thinking that a cat may have chewed on the tree and cut the cord. Second I checked for loose bulbs. When both inspections failed to reveal a problem, I decided to change the fuses in the plug of the cord. Suffice it to say that, in an effort to remove and replace those fuses, further damage occurred to the plug, making the string’s replacement inevitable.

Before going to the store, I looked again at the instructions for the cords and learned that the old method of stringing all the cords as one line no longer works with modern lights. No more than three strings can be plugged in together. This appeared to mean that I would have to strip all the lights from the tree and reattach them. At the store, however, an extension cord was found to solve just that problem—the cord has three sets of outlets along its length, so it can be wound through the tree and bring power to all the lights.

I brought home that cord and the new string of lights, only to discover that I had grabbed the wrong package of lights—the cord was white instead of green. So that meant another trip to the store to make the exchange.

Today the tree has lights, but not yet any ornaments. Six boxes in the shed contain Christmas tree ornaments. (I hope one of them also contains the missing pieces to the manger scene—it is short an angel and two sheep and one other figure, probably a shepherd). Maybe tonight and tomorrow, and possibly stretching through the week, those boxes will be brought into the house, each individual ornament unwrapped, inspected, and lovingly placed on the tree. Many memories will be renewed. And we will have our Christmas tree throughout the coming twelve days of Christmas. J.

Stream of consciousness

…when your doctor changes all your medications—blood pressure, allergy, and mood control—at the end of November, so that the first week of December you cannot assess which things are shaping your approach to life: the change in medication; dark, gloomy skies; later sunrises and earlier sunsets; an allergy to oak leaves and their dust; pressure of the holiday season; the latest senseless obsession; traffic and bad drivers; tedious tasks at work….

Listen: When I was a teen-aged boy, my mother would bring me to the county fairgrounds on the day when all the 4-H members in the county would bring in their projects to be judged and displayed. In the morning I would help check in the wood-working exhibits—woodworking! (And all these years later, I still can’t complete a decent woodworking project. It’s taken me all fall to finish the task of rebuilding a wooden rail around the front steps. A decent carpenter could do the work in half a day, but I’m doing the same steps three or four times to get it right, and often walking away for days in disgust before I can return to the task.) Anyhow, when all the projects were checked in, I would go over to the Home Economics building, with its 4-H exhibits of cooking, baking, canning, sewing, knitting, crocheting, macramé, ceramics, flower arranging, table setting, and the like. Each category was being measured by a different judge, who would award blue, red, or white ribbons and then select champion projects from the blue ribbon winners, while a person such as my mother would record the judge’s remarks on each exhibit. My job that afternoon was to gather all the sheets of paper containing judges’ remarks and arrange them alphabetically by exhibitor name. Each 4-H exhibitor could then come to the fair and pick up the judges’ remarks for all of his or her exhibits. Little did I know at the time that this annual task would prepare me more for my present career than all the classes I took in college and in graduate school.

For some years ago Mr. X and his secretary arranged all his incoming mail and copies of outgoing mail in folders by the month. Now these papers are being saved for researchers to study Mr. X and his boss. But no one is going to care what letters Mr. X received and sent in February 1985. No, they will want to know if Mr. Y sent a letter to Mr. X or his boss in 1985 or 1986. So I am taking boxes of folders, removing all the letters, and arranging them alphabetically by year, just like those 4-H forms from long ago. My task is not to read and interpret the letters. All I’m here to do is arrange the letters and describe the arrangement in a database so other people can come here and read and interpret them.

Meanwhile, we have a sick cat at home. About three weeks ago he suddenly lost his balance so badly that he could barely walk. We asked ourselves what could afflict a cat so suddenly: a stroke? MS? ALS? Guillen-Barre? The veterinarian suspected an inner ear infection and started the cat on steroids and antibiotics. He (the cat) has gotten better, but we cannot be sure how much is due to clearing the infection and how much is due to his ability to adjust to continuous vertigo and (perhaps) double vision. He can walk and even run a little, but his jumping is limited to beds and couches—this of a cat who regularly patrolled the top of six-foot-tall bookcases, not to mention the china cabinet and the grandfather clock. He seems content with his lot rather than unhappy. But, when walking or sitting, he tilts his head to one side as if that helps him see things better. It’s cute and endearing, but also heartbreaking because he never did that before.

And why do WordPress and Createspace both demand that I review my work one more time before I can publish it? I always write in Microsoft Word and read through the text several times to make corrections before I copy and paste it. Why do these companies assume that I’m handing in a rough draft that needs another look before it can be shared?

And we are gradually unpacking the Christmas decorations which were sent out for cleaning after our fire last May. They are all in good shape, except for an occasional stain here or there, nothing intolerable. But they were not packed by the cleaners in any sort of discernable pattern. So at present we have a manger scene with ceramic figures of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, wise men, camels, and angels—but no baby in a manger yet, and no sheep. And other random items are similarly appearing in the house as we unpack one box at a time. Still, life goes on, and it’s hard to know how to feel….

J.

 

Gray November blues

I’ve been lethargic for the last two or three weeks, which is frustrating, because there are a number of projects I need to complete. I bought new strings for my guitar three weeks ago because the top string broke, but I haven’t taken the time to restring the guitar. I have replaced the railing on one side of the front steps, but the other side needs to be done too. I haven’t even raked leaves in more than a month. I’m sure that seems passive-aggressive to Mrs. Dim and my other neighbors, who have been frantically raking and bagging several times a week. But, in my defense, when the weather is good I’m busy doing other things; when I have time to rake leaves, it is raining or has recently rained and the leaves are wet. (Not that wet leaves stop Mrs. Dim from blowing and gathering and bagging leaves.)

For most of my life, I’ve lived in places where the trees are bare by Veterans’ Day. Even now November seems to bring gloom and fatigue. Five years ago I had just suffered a wrenching series of problems (which I now describe as the Mayan apocalypse). I think those memories are flavoring November this year. On top of that, I’ve been experiencing fierce tinnitus (ringing in the ears) all this autumn. It’s like hearing tree frogs day and night, only about two octaves higher.

Thursday afternoon, driving to teach a class, I suddenly had an unusual sense of well-being. I don’t know why—it may have been the blue sky and the unseasonably warm temperature. Anyhow, I felt good the rest of the evening. Friday brought me back down to earth. The contents of the storage shed which burned last spring had been taken for cleaning and were finally scheduled to be returned on Friday. I arranged to be off of work Friday morning, and I waited for the phone call from the delivery person. No call came. I was feeling increasingly stressed as noon approached. I tried calling the company, but only a machine answered the phone. I ate lunch, changed clothes, and drove to work. When I arrived, I had a message waiting on my phone. The company had given the driver my work number instead of my home number. I called him, agreed to meet him at one o’clock, got another employee to cover my responsibilities for the afternoon and drove home. It took about fifteen minutes for the two of us to unload the truck. (He thanked me for helping.) So now I have boxes of Christmas decorations waiting to be unpacked last month; and our traditional autumn decorations are in place finally, even though they were not out for Halloween.

Some people battle with frequent colds and others wrestle with allergies. My struggles are hidden inside of me, where no one else can detect or measure them. Even as simple an action as sifting through my WordPress Reader, clicking on posts, reading them, liking them, and perhaps commenting on them—even that pales after a few minutes and I turn to assembling a virtual jigsaw puzzle on the computer. This too shall pass; it always does. Blame the month of November. J.

Ruby Sparks (movie review)

Five years ago the movie Ruby Sparks appeared briefly in theaters. Reading the newspaper reviews intrigued me and I wanted to view the movie, but it was gone again before I had a chance to see it. This summer, using birthday gift money, I was able to buy a DVD of the movie. It arrived in yesterday’s mail. I watched it last night, and I am pleased to report that it met and exceeded my expectations.

The central premise of the plot is that a novelist creates a character—the title character of the film—and then she suddenly becomes a real person. This story retells the Greek myth Pygmalion, in which a sculptor falls in love with a statue he has carved and a goddess transforms the statue into a living woman. Of course this story has been retold many times in a variety of settings. Ruby Sparks does a better than average job of making the main characters believable, set in a twenty-first century California city.

Paul Dano plays the writer, Calvin, and Zoe Kazan plays the title character. (Kazan also wrote the script for the movie.) Brief appearances by Elliott Gould, Annette Bening, and Antonio Banderas add texture to the film. Calvin is approaching his thirtieth birthday, having written the Great American Novel while still a teenager. Like many prodigies, Calvin struggles to meet the high expectations triggered by his early success. Early in the movie he is shown in a counseling session in which his self-doubt and fear of failure are clearly revealed. A girl he first meets in two separate dreams, coupled with a suggestion by his counselor, ignites Calvin’s imagination and sends him into a writing frenzy, creating a romantic novel starring his dream girl, Ruby Sparks.

The character of Calvin is well established when the appearance of the real Ruby Sparks begins to be foreshadowed. Her sudden manifestation in his kitchen causes Calvin to doubt his sanity, a verdict in which his brother concurs. Two revelations follow: other people can see Ruby and interact with her, and Calvin can cause Ruby to speak fluent French by adding a sentence to his novel. Calvin soberly locks the text of the novel in a desk drawer, and then he and Ruby establish a beautiful romance.

Of course the magic relationship does not last forever. Ruby wants more excitement than Calvin’s reclusive life offers. She increases her independence until Calvin begins trying to manipulate her through his writing. His own emotional problems are magnified in her behavior, until an ugly and inevitable confrontation between author and character occurs, vividly depicted by Dano and Kazan.

The pace of the movie follows the inner life of the author. His emotional disorders are subtly portrayed in a variety of ways without becoming distracting or insulting. His eccentricities—such as using an obsolete typewriter for his work—are important to the story. Yet many of the reviews I have read this morning miss the point, treating the pace, the actor’s work, and the details—such as the typewriter—as flaws.

Ruby Sparks covers far more than emotional disorders. It delves into the relationship between artists and the products of their art. A creator wants to be in control, yet the creator must also allow the art to develop in its own way. Characters find their own voice, begin to make their own decisions, and even force changes in the plot of the work. I am sure that painters, sculptors, and composers of music can share similar stories of the ways their creations overpowered them and forced them to change the work they were doing.

That said, Ruby Sparks is not a flawless movie. The characters are foul-mouthed and have no respect for the marriage bed (although fornication is not depicted on-screen). The ending tries to be both charming and ambiguous and instead is unsatisfying. One cannot be certain whether Calvin has learned from his experiences or if he is doomed to repeat his mistakes again. Like many good movies, though, Ruby Sparks manages the little nuances which carry the story of the movie without relying solely on dialogue and action. It is more than a romantic comedy; it is a thoughtful approach to creativity and the loneliness of the artist. For that reason alone, I recommend it. J.

Stressing in the shadow of the moon

Traveling to see the total eclipse of the sun this week meant spending time with extended family. Now I love the members of my family. We get along well with each other, probably better than the average American family. But spending time with family still is stressful. It includes sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, eating on a different schedule, eating different foods, and being exposed to television programs I prefer to avoid. I am an introvert, a highly sensitive person, and am subject to bouts of anxiety. Not every member of the family understands my situation or has any sympathy for my problems.

The first problem was travel. Over the past five years, I have endured increasing dread over road trips. I wake up the morning of a road trip anticipating that something will go wrong with the car, leaving us stranded on the side of the road. In this case, the dread began building two days before the time of departure. I responded by praying that we would be kept safe throughout the trip. We were in fact kept safe, but not in the way I had hoped.

About halfway into the trip, stopping at a gas station, we heard a noise from the front of the car. To me it sounded as if something was scraping against the tire. We first heard it only while steering through turns. As we approached our destination, we also heard the sound when stopping, even without turning. I got out of the car and inspected the wheel well, and nothing was even close to touching the tire. We arrived at the house without further incident, but we knew that someone would have to look at the car before we did any more driving.

Our host knows more about cars than I do, so he went out and looked at the car. He noticed rust on the brake rotors, an indication that the brake pads were not coming in contact with the rotors as they should. He suggested that we visit a local mechanic to have the brakes checked. He also noticed that the front tires were badly worn and indicated that the mechanic would probably want to replace those as well.

The next morning I took the car to the recommended mechanic. He had a lot of customers and said the repair would not happen until the next day. He did say that he would look at the car the same day and let me know what work needed to be done. That meant that I spent the entire day waiting for a telephone call—not a good situation for someone prone to anxiety and in someone else’s house. When the call finally came at the end of the day, the news was not good. Front and rear brakes needed to be replaced—not only brake pads, but rotors and drums as well. All four tires needed to be replaced—the front pair were worn, and the back pair had been cut by failing shock absorbers. The noise we had heard was not from the brakes, though. That noise was from a ball joint in the front of the car. The total repair amounted to hundreds of dollars, although they threw in every discount they could find, including a one hundred dollar reduction given by financing the repair through a credit card supplied by their company.

In short, my feelings of anxiety about the car excursion were accurate. We were in danger of brake failure, which would have been worse than being stranded at the side of the road. My prayers for safety were answered; it may well have been miraculous that the brakes did not fail at any point of the trip.

Meanwhile, we had a second day without the car, a day that had been set aside for a visit to another city. We ended up making that trip in a borrowed car—one more unfamiliar situation to aggravate stress and anxiety.

Then came the actual day of the eclipse. My daughter and I were already energized in anticipation for the event, a feeling not far from the usual anxiety of life. Fortunately, the moon and the sun were not affected by our feelings, and we all enjoyed the show.

The final stage of the tour was driving home in a newly-repaired car. The night before that scheduled drive found me very unsettled. To make matters worse, the dinner menu that evening contained several foods that irritate my digestive system. I tried to limit my intake to small servings of those foods, but the combination of all of them—along with the building stress over the long drive—left me in severe discomfort. This experience is a vicious cycle—anxiety makes digestion worse, while bad digestion makes anxiety worse. The unexpected noise of a vacuum cleaner sent me over the edge. Our host tried to make things better by saying, “J., calm down, we don’t need this drama.” Of course that did not help at all. I needed to get away to another room, be alone for a while, focus on my breathing, and regain control of myself.

It would help if more family members understood what anxiety means. Too often they do act as if anxiety is a choice, something that can be controlled, and therefore a cause for blame. I know that if I showed up with my leg in a cast, they would not ask me to walk normally and blame me for being different. Because anxiety is not visible, it does not gather the same sympathy and understanding as a broken leg, or even a common cold. Even though that makes family events more challenging, I still love the members of my extended family and am glad for the time we are able to spend together. J.

Why does he do it?

Soren Kierkegaard describes a man who lived in a quiet neighborhood of Copenhagen. This man, a bookkeeper, was respected and well-lived, for he was kind, educated, generous, and particularly benevolent toward children. This man had one peculiar habit. Every day, between eleven o’clock and noon, he would pace the same path in the city streets. Any other hour of the day he would greet people and talk with them, but no one could interrupt his daily hour of pacing. Back and forth he would walk, an intent look in his eye, but completely unaware of the world around him. No one in his neighborhood knew how this habit began, but they tolerated it in him because he was so good to them the rest of the day.
A man like this lives in my neighborhood. Every Saturday, unless the weather is cold or raining, he paces back and forth in his yard. Like that man Kierkegaard describes, he walks back and forth without purpose for about an hour. Like Kierkegaard’s bookkeeper, he is courteous and kind the rest of the week. For this one hour, though, this man seems controlled by some thought no one else can know. No one dares to interrupt him as he paces. He moves back and forth, an intent look on his face, until the hour is over and he returns to normal.
I wonder about this man. I wonder what sort of obsession or compulsion causes him to pace in this way. Please understand, I am in no way mocking Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I have considerable sympathy for all who struggle with that problem, and I would not wish it on anyone. It seems possible to me that this man is dealing with that kind of issue in his life.
Otherwise, I wonder if that man is engaged in some religious pursuit. Once again, I have the highest respect for religion and would never mock it. It occurs to me that this man may be entranced in some sort of mediation that is meant to bring him closer to God or lift him to a higher level of consciousness.
I should think, though, that his meditation might be disturbed by the noisy lawnmower this man pushes in front of him as he paces.
Some reader might say, “OK, I see what you did there, J. Very funny to set us up with compulsive pacing and then tell us he is just mowing his lawn.” Before you assume that I wrote all this for the sake of a joke, consider that I am very serious about my question: Why does he do it? Why this obsession with a patch of grass that sends this poor man outside, week after week, to toil and labor in service of his lawn?
Yes, I cut my grass when it has gotten long enough to need cutting. I do not treat it as a religious ceremony, though, because I just try to get it done as quickly as possible, leaving time for more important things. If this man’s lawn maintenance is part of his religion, I envy his zeal. I wish I could serve my Lord as faithfully as he serves his lawn. If I could bring to my Christian living the kind of energy and determination shown by this man and others like him, I could truly be numbered among the saints.
If, however, this behavior is obsession or compulsion, I feel sorry for this man. To be in the chains of a habit that sends him out, every Saturday morning, to mow and trim and fertilize and tend his lawn, when he could be doing more important things, must be misery. I try to be kind to him whenever our paths cross, hoping my kindness can somehow compensate for this man’s unfortunate slavery to a patch of grass.
J. (originally posted May 5, 2015)

Sometimes you just do not know

Picture an office filled with men, each doing his own job, each living his own life. None of them really knows any of the others. (I have made all the workers men just for the ease of using the same pronoun. Any of these people could easily be a woman. The personalities and situations are not gender-specific.)

A is grouchy and surly when he comes to work. He says he is not a morning person. He does not mention his routine of three drinks every evening, with the standard hangover each day that does not disappear until lunchtime.

B is also grouchy and surly when he comes to work. He never mentions his digestive tract problems which cause pain and discomfort throughout the day but which are worse in the morning.

C is grouchy and surly but blames it on the traffic. He does not know that he has an anxiety disorder which causes him to overreact to incidents on the highway.

D is generally in a good mood when he arrives at work. He is in good health, is involved in a strong relationship, and is in decent financial shape.

E is also generally in a good mood when he arrives at work. He is in a poor financial situation and has no strong relationships, but he is either too deep or too shallow to let these things shape his mood at work.

F seems generally in a good mood at work. He is compensating for ongoing depression, coping with life by pretending to have no problems or concerns.

G arrives at work a few minutes late. He and his wife started the day with a romantic encounter, but that information is far too private to share with his coworkers.

H also arrives at work a few minutes late. He and his wife had an argument over breakfast about the family budget, but that information is far too private to share with his coworkers.

J is generally quiet at work. He is an introvert and is most comfortable working on his computer, not relating directly to other people.

K is generally quiet at work. He is developing a short story in his head and is absorbed in the characters and the plot.

L is generally quiet at work. He is planning a terrorist attack in the coming days and wants to be sure that he does not reveal his plans to anyone.

M is generally quiet at work. He hates his job and has been filling out job applications for every opening he can find.

And so it goes. None of these men really knows any of the others. They never discuss religion or politics–no one knows who in the office is a Christian, who is atheist, or who is agnostic. No one knows who voted for Hillary Clinton, who voted for Donald Trump, who voted for a third party candidate, and who did not vote. The supervisor evaluates their work without knowing which of his employees are exerting themselves in extraordinary ways to overcome problems and which are lazy and are capable of doing far more than they accomplish. When they form a team to finish a project, no one knows who is excited about the project, who is frightened by the project, and who is bored with the project.

Life is like this sometimes. We wear our masks, play our roles, and hide our identities so deeply that some of us even forget who we are. Some go home to families where they can be themselves; others must continue to play a role at home. Some have friends who accept them as they are; others perform for their friends and hide their real selves. Some can be themselves at church, while others put on an act before their brothers and sisters in the faith. Some are genuine in the face of the one true God; others try to perform even for Him.

God knows each of us–our problems, our blessings, our thoughts, even the number of hairs on our heads. He made us, and He is constantly aware of each of us. No matter who you and I pretend to be at work, at home, or out in the world, we can never fool God, and we never should try. Each of us is a sinner who desperately needs a Savior. Each of us is rescued, forgiven, and claimed for the Kingdom of God by the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. We have different resources, different abilities, and different opportunities, just as the human body consists of eyes and ears and hands and feet and many other parts. God loves all of us and can support each of us in any difficulty. J.

You can’t outrun a panic attack

According to an old quip, “Insanity is hereditary—you get it from your children.”

The first problem with that saying is that insanity is a legal term, not a medical term. It describes a lack of responsibility or accountability due to mental illness, but a medical professional word not use the word outside of a courtroom.

Moreover, mental and emotional illnesses are not communicable diseases. You cannot catch it from another person the way you catch a cold or flu virus. The behavior of one’s children can create stress that acerbates one’s illness, but stress alone does not make a person mentally ill.

If my daughter did not make me ill, at least her condition helped me to discover my own problems and to seek help. Her struggle with depression became noticeable while she was in college. When she sought help from the school’s professional counselor, he told her that she was merely homesick. Years later, after two rounds of hospital stays along with medication and counseling, she is doing better. Of course she has good days and bad days, as do we all.

To be a supportive father, I took the time to learn more about depression and anxiety. I was aware that I have occasional spells of depression. My usual response was to push my way through the bout stoically. At that time I believed that virtue is doing the right thing in spite of one’s feelings. For example, courage is not lack of fear; courage is doing the right thing in spite of fear. I reasoned that, so long as I forced myself out of bed and met my responsibilities, how I felt was unimportant. Thanks to my daughter’s situation, I became educated about what a bad approach that was.

As I read about anxiety and the way it manifests itself, I realized that I battle anxiety far more often than I face depression. Being chronically short-tempered, responding to annoyances with over-the-top rage, slamming doors, kicking furniture—these were not bad habits proving that I’m a bad person; these were symptoms of a treatable problem called anxiety. Men, I learned, are more likely to feel angry rather than frightened when hit by a panic attack. No doubt that has something to do with male and female roles in society, but I’ve done no research on that aspect of anxiety. (This is why I republished my Basil Fawlty post yesterday.)

I see my other daughters acting the same way. Twice this spring when they have been together, they have been short-tempered with one another, quick to take offense, bursting into tears because of something a sister said, fleeing the conversation rather than getting over it. I am looking for ways to encourage them to get help, not to delay seeking help until they reach a crisis, as happened to one of them already.

The daughter who survived a crisis and is receiving appropriate care had a troubling episode Monday night. Her car broke down just before Christmas; she could not afford to repair it, so she sold it “as is” with plans to buy another car. So far, she has not been able to find one she can afford, aside from those likely to last only a short time. This situation led to an emotional melt-down that had her curled up in a chair, sobbing uncontrollably. I tried to offer what help I could, but then I backed off to give her the space she needed.

At this point, her crying pushed me into a panic attack. At first I just tried to close myself in another room, but I could still feel the attack at work. My fists were clenched, and I wanted to strike myself with the book I was unable to read. I wanted to shout at my daughter, to tell her, “You are obsessing over money and property. These things are not supposed to be so important to you.”

Instead I went for a walk. You can’t outrun a panic attack, but that’s no reason not to try. Working off nervous energy with moderate exercise is always a good idea. Actually, it was a very brisk walk with a lot of hostility still boiling inside me. When cars came toward me I held my ground and forced them to change their path. None of them came close to hitting me—and at that time, I followed that observation with the words, “I’m not that lucky.” I don’t doubt that people in the neighborhood wondered about the man stalking past their houses, but I needed that walk at that time.

As I walked down one street, I saw two people on the other side of the road with flashlights. At first I assumed that they were looking for something one of them had dropped in the dark—car keys, perhaps. As I got closer, I saw that they were bagging leaves. One of them was wearing a helmet with a lantern, the kind of gear associated with miners. This oddity helped turn my thinking away from my own problems. Who in the world is so obsessed with bagging leaves that they carry (and wear) lights to do it during the night?

I was going to share that anecdote with my daughter, but by the time I got home she had gone to bed. The car situation is unchanged, but she somehow worked through her attack as I worked through mine. J.