One hour at the bank

A few days ago I visited the bank. You were probably there as well. In fact, it seemed as though half the world was at the bank at the same time, although it couldn’t have been half the world. To be bluntly literal about the visit, a dozen people were standing in line when I arrived, and a dozen people were in line waiting when I left. So I only saw two dozen customers standing in line at the bank. When, when you are waiting to be served, a dozen people seems like a lot of people.

These customers were a diverse group of people. Some were male and others were female; beyond that, I did not inquire about gender identities. I figured it was none of my business. One boy was seven years old; I know this because another man asked him his age, and I heard his answer. The man in front of me was probably around eighty years old. He was tall, slender, white haired, with good posture, and he wore a cap that said “Disfunctional Veteran,” which I thought was cute. One man in line resembled
Willie Nelson. He had the long hair worn in a pony tail, the beard, the casual clothing, and even the raspy voice which probably came from years of tobacco and bourbon. Some of us were white, others were black, and others were Hispanic. I don’t remember now if anyone in line was of east Asian heritage, but I know that I have seen such people at the bank on other occasions.

Banks increasingly want people to use their online services. These services were advertised prominently in the bank lobby. Probably for this reason, the bank had only two tellers serving customers, although other bank employees were also in the building. I do most of my banking online. My employers deposit my pay directly into my checking account, and using my computer I send money automatically to pay most of my bills. I have become accustomed to using a credit card instead of cash for groceries, gasoline, restaurant meals, and other purchases. But one of my employers writes me a check every week, and I like to have some cash in my wallet for certain purchases. I visit the bank once most weeks, although occasionally I will skip a week and bring two checks to the bank the following week.

Sometimes a banker will speak with people standing in line to ask what they want to do. If they are depositing a check and do not want money back, he can deal with them electronically. It takes him longer to do this with his little machine than it takes the tellers, but if several people are in line, using his services still saves time. While I was there, he was able to help one customer in this way. He then found another woman who only wanted to deposit a check, and began helping her. I figured he would get to me next. I could use his services to deposit my check and then be on my way. Things did not turn out that way.

Often people who visit the bank in person have complicated financial matters to resolve. They may have lost their credit or debit card, or they might have a check to cash but they are not customers of the bank. They might want to challenge a charge that has appeared on their account. Some have money to deposit from a business, and others have money to disperse through a business. Some customers are merely befuddled by the banking business. They may be elderly, or they may be native to a different culture. We all stood in line, waiting our turn. Many stood quietly, saying nothing. Others tried to engage in conversation with those standing near them. Some complained about the length of their wait. Willie Nelson in particular complained about the time he was standing in line, repeatedly assuring us that he was going to change banks in the very near future.

Another man who had been complaining about how long he was waiting reached the front of the line and began speaking with the teller. He soon realized that he had left some needed papers in his car. He first sent his seven-year-old son out to the car to find the missing papers. When the son returned without those papers, another customer jumped out of line to help. He was able to retrieve the missing papers. Willie Nelson got to the front of the line, and it turned out that his check could not be cashed because it was dated for the following day. After several complaints (including the fact that he was going to change banks), he left. The man who jumped out of line to help another customer reached the front of the line and complained to the teller that this was taking so long. His transaction also entailed complications, which ended up requiring the help of another banker. He told her also that he had been in line for an hour. “We appreciate you spending your time with us,” she replied with a smile. Several of us behind him in line exchanged grins at her retort.

Willie Nelson returned after making a telephone call from outside the bank. Somehow, he had gotten approval for his transaction over the phone. He went straight to the teller—interrupting the helpful customer who had been waiting for an hour—and was quickly given the help he had requested. Meanwhile, the woman who had only wanted to deposit a check was returned to the front of the line. The banker with the little machine had been unable to process her transaction. When she was put in front of us (right after Willie Nelson had returned and gotten immediate help), the disfunctional veteran standing in front of me gave up and left the bank.

All this happened on the Thursday after Memorial Day. I never go to the bank on Mondays; Mondays are their busiest day. When they are closed on Monday (as they were for Memorial Day), I do not visit on Tuesday. Wednesday I had planned to stop at the bank, but a traffic tie-up in front of the bank, complete with a police car with flashing lights, had kept me from entering. So I was there on a Thursday, with half the rest of the world also standing in line with me.

Like many of the other customers—including Willie Nelson—I asked myself why I was there. Why couldn’t the deposit of that check have waited until the next week? My answer to myself was that I was there to observe people. I was watching them, listening to them, learning about people from them. I knew that I would write about this visit to the bank. I might not earn twenty dollars for writing a thousand word essay about my visit to the bank, but my practice in observing and remembering and writing remains part of my identity as a writer. Other people lost their temper. I remained calm, assuring myself that the hour was well-spent, confident that these sixty minutes would somehow contribute to my full and complete and meaningful life.

And now you have benefited from my hour at the bank. J.

Prince Louis at the Platinum Jubilee

While I have not had time to sit and watch the coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee, I have seen a few highlights. (Such an event is not merely a once-in-a-lifetime celebration; it may very well be a once-in-history event. Can anyone else name a king or queen who ruled for seventy years?) The picture that remains in my memory is that of Prince Louis, the four-year-old great-grandson of the Queen, covering his ears and screaming during the royal fly-over at the beginning of the ceremonies.

That picture sticks in my head because I was once that child. I could not bear loud noises. Much as I enjoyed the Fourth of July parades every year, I hated those moments when the fire engines came down the street, blowing their sirens and honking their horns. I also was not fond of fireworks, and as an adult I have stayed away from firework shows. When the electric company sent out their trucks to trim branches from the trees and grind them into mulch, I was in agony. I remember running through the house, hands over my ears, screaming, just as the young prince was doing in London last week.

Other people—even close family—do not understand the pain that loud noises cause in some people’s lives. The prince’s mother, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, appears to be laughing. I hope she is not laughing at her son, but at something else happening the same moment. My family sometimes laughed at my reaction to loud noises. They apparently did not realize that I was genuinely suffering, that my reaction to the noises were not an exaggeration but were a sincere response to the pain I felt from those sounds.

Like anyone, I am startled by a sudden, unexpected, loud noise. When something shorted out at the power pole last evening while we were at the dinner table, there was a bright flash of light and a loud report, and we all jumped. But I got over the surprise as quickly as everyone else. Ongoing noises, even when they are not as loud, bother me more. Lawn trimmers and leaf blowers create a sound that resonates in my head, making me unable to read or do other work while they run. Music and conversations often break my concentration. For me, there is no such thing as background noise. I play music when I want to hear the music. I turn on the television when I want to watch something. When I want to work, to read, to concentrate on something important, I prefer a quiet house or office. Not everyone is like me. Not everyone understands the condition.

I hope that, as he grows, Prince Louis will find family members and other people who respect his reaction to noise. I hope that people will not speak of him as “spoilt” merely because loud sounds upset him. In general, as society becomes increasingly accommodating for people with “special needs,” increasingly aware of the diversity that goes far beyond appearance and language and culture, that there will be room for those of us who are sensitive, who cannot handle noise, who sometimes need some peace and quiet. The prince may offer an opportunity to promote that awareness. J.

Are you paranoid?

The following quiz will help to determine whether you are paranoid, and to what extent.

  • When you cannot find your phone, you ask: A—”Where did I leave my phone?”; or B—“Who stole my phone?”
  • When a law is passed which does not meet with your approval, you wonder: A—“Why are they trying to fix what isn’t broken?”; or B—“Why are they trying to destroy the country?”
  • When you cannot find the ice cream scoop in the kitchen, you ponder: A—“Did my spouse/partner/housemate get absentminded and put it in some unusual place?”; or B—“Is my spouse/partner/housemate trying to annoy me by hiding it from me?”
  • When a news show hosts a discussion about an issue, and the proponent of your side seems annoyingly loud and poorly informed, but the proponent of the other side seems calm, cool, and rational, you consider: A—“Why couldn’t they have found someone better able to defend my position—me, for example?” or B—“Isn’t it obvious that they are trying to shape public opinion by making my position look bad?”
  • When a worker at the store seems cold toward you and unwilling to help you (and that worker has a different color skin, either darker or lighter than yours), your reaction is: A—“This worker must be having a bad day and must be tired after hours of waiting on customers”; or B—“This worker is obviously racist and is prejudiced against me and people who look like me.”
  • The author of this post is: A—“Examining society in general and drawing material from his own life and experiences”; or B—“Picking on me and subjecting me to mockery and scorn, just as everyone else in the world keeps doing.”

A little paranoia can be healthy. Approaching a stranger in a secluded area, a person should consider the possibility that the stranger might be dangerous, that it might be necessary to fight or to flee. Safe drivers remain vigilant for other drivers who will do unexpected and dangerous things in traffic. Citizens should always be wary that government, big business, and the communications/entertainment industry will use their power for their own purposes and not for the good of all the people. But too much paranoia is unhealthy. Trusting no one, feeling constantly under attack, looking under every bed and behind every couch for enemies leads to unnecessary fear, stress, and anger.

Paranoia is often a symptom of other unhealthy conditions. Paranoia often accompanies dementia in people suffering brain damage due to physical trauma, degenerative disease, or chronic substance abuse. Paranoia can be a signal that something is wrong; but the signal is often missed by doctors. After all, who is going to confess paranoia to a doctor? The doctor is most likely part of the plot, part of the danger, part of the reason that one has become paranoid in the first place. Perhaps They are trying to make us paranoid so they have a reason to lock us up and take away our freedom.

Studies show that childhood experiences can cause or worsen paranoia. Someone who was abused at home or bullied at school may have been conditioned to distrust people and to assume the worst of others. When I told my mother that other children were picking on me at school, she told me, “They’re just trying to get a reaction from you. Don’t show them that it bothers you, and they’ll leave you alone.” Years later, my counselor wondered why I didn’t speak with my neighbors about their habits that bothered me—using loud tools for lawn maintenance early on summer mornings, for example. But my thought remained stuck in my mother’s advice: if I let them know that it bothers me, they’ll keep doing it, and they’ll look for ways to be even more annoying, just to make me miserable.

We learn to suffer in silence. Along the way, we forget that the things that bother us usually are unintentional. Other drivers didn’t install bright headlights on their cars just to bother our eyes. Those two drivers who block the street to have a conversation from the front seats of their respective cars—they are unwise and inconsiderate, but they are not purposely creating an obstacle for others. And that man who put his shopping cart right in front of the next item you wanted to put in your cart—he didn’t know what you were planning to buy. If he stands there, reading the label on something he might or might not buy, he is not purposely wasting your time. He probably thinks he was doing you a favor, getting his cart out of your way.

When we let paranoia govern our outlook, we cannot love our neighbors as we love ourselves. When we let paranoia govern our outlook, we cannot love and trust God above all things. If God is in control, then They cannot defeat us. We rest in his arms. We trust his victory. We allow his perfect love to drive out fear.

It would help if those of us who are paranoid could band together and support one another. Of course, we first would have to learn how to trust each other. For years, people have tried to organize Procrastination Societies. They had good intentions, but they never got around to holding their first meeting. Likewise, we who are paranoid remain isolated because we do not recognize each other. We need some sort of secret greeting, some way to recognize one another. Perhaps, when we meet a new person, the first step should be to say the word, “Noid.” If that person responds by also saying, “Noid,” then we know that the two of us are a paranoids, and we can work together to help each other as we face the rest of this world, all those people out there who are out to get us. J.

Remembrance of opportunities lost

We all carry regrets from the past. What we cannot fix, we try to forget. Sometimes, though, the memories linger for a while; they refuse to be lost in the mists of time now expired.

I remember a college cheerleader—I’ll call her Lori. One summer she and I were among the first students to return to campus for the new school year. We first crossed paths at an all-campus party for returning students. I happened across this party by accident and remained at the edge, not wanting to be surrounded by the crowd. Somehow, Lori and I noticed each other and began a conversation. The conversation continued back at my dorm room. (Nothing else happened; we merely talked.) She encouraged me to attend a scrimmage the school’s football team was holding the next day. Because of her invitation, I went to the scrimmage. It seemed odd to me—the team was recreating the closing minutes of the game they had lost to our biggest rival at the end of last season. They were experimenting to see what might have happened with our new quarterback in charge of the offense’s final drive in the place of last year’s quarterback. The scrimmage was designed to turn into a pep rally (celebrating the win that might have happened but didn’t); the pep rally included a meal, and Lori asked me to attend, but I declined. I wanted to get back to my room and finish unpacking, and I wanted to see if my roommate and other friends had arrived. Although some of my roommate’s possessions were in the room, he was not around when I returned, but a couple of other friends were there. While we visited, Lori dropped in again. I meant to introduce her to my friends, but somehow—in the confusion of the moment—introductions were not made. Instead, I pulled out a wooden box I had made that summer. Picturing it in my hands today, it would have made a nice cage for a cricket or other large insect. One of my friends asked if it was made from toothpicks, and I answered no, that it was made from splinters pulled off an old railroad tie. I did not say this, but I was thinking that no cheerleaders had been around to encourage my work on this piece of art. It seems that somehow Lori read my mind, because she suddenly ran out of the room, sobbing. At that instant, I was torn—I wanted to go to her, to comfort her, to have her come back so I could introduce her to my friends and make her part of the group. At the same time, I was reluctant to leave my friends for her, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to her. Before I could resolve the dilemma, I awoke.

Yes, this was all a dream and Lori, like the wooden art project, was only a creation of my dream mind. She didn’t even have a name in the dream; she was only “the cheerleader.” But the regret I felt was real. I appreciated our brief friendship, I wanted that friendship to continue to grow, and I hated the knowledge that I had hurt her feelings, even if it was only in my thoughts and in my dream.

I didn’t mention the earlier parts of the dream in which I visited a classroom where I had earlier taught a class, spoke with some of the students in that classroom, watched the new professor hand out candy and pizza to the students, then left and tried (but failed) to find my car in the parking lot, all of which led to the party where I met the cheerleader. I’ve been having (and remembering) a lot of dreams this year that are like this dream—vivid, filled with related happenings as well as people and places, and often shaping my feelings for the entire day following the dream. These dreams may be due, at least partly, to medications I am taking, but they obviously come from my own mind. I dream about people I remember—family and friends and coworkers, including some who have died, others who I haven’t seem for years, and some I still see nearly every day. At times the dreams are so vivid and realistic that I confuse them for memories of actual events or scenes from movies I’ve recently watched. (Did I recently see a deer, dream about a deer, or watch a movie that included a deer. That’s right—the deer was in last night’s movie.) In no way do I consider my dreams to be messages from God or predictions of the future. Dreams are mental problem-solving devices, managing hopes and fears, often in symbolic ways. But I still feel bad about upsetting Lori. If I could, I would let her know that I am sorry and that I still want us to be friends. J.

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.

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.

World Mental Health Day, the Mayan Apocalypse, friendship, and other things

When the calendar turns to October, I remember the Mayan apocalypse of 2012. For me, that apocalypse was centered in the month of October, focused most distinctly on the tenth day of October. The Mayans maintained a complicated calendar which reset after many years, and the end of our year 2012 coincided with one of their reset times. For most people, the Mayan apocalypse was nothing, just as the switch to 2000 had been nothing. But my life was hit by apocalypse in October 2012.

Much of the apocalypse was mechanical and financial. Every vehicle in the household seemed to break down that month, requiring towing and expensive repairs. (Since the household included young adults, you can imagine some of those cars were old, used models, prone to breakdowns.) As we were dealing with that jolt, the family desktop computer stopped working, requiring replacement and including the loss of some documents and programs. As soon as we replaced the computer, we also had to replace the printer. Some other appliance also required repair at that time—the oven, I think, or maybe the refrigerator. It seemed as though everything was falling apart.

My feelings regarding that turmoil became focused on the announcement that a prized and precious coworker was leaving to take a new position at another job; her last day was the tenth of October. We had worked together for the past five years. Her presence had made work more enjoyable, and her assistance improved the quality of my work. We had no romantic attachment, but—given the chaos of the apocalypse—I came to regard her departure as the worst crisis of the month. Every October reminds me of that month. Songs on the radio bring back memories. Songs and stories I have written keep those memories alive. I received with a sense of irony the news that October 10 is World Mental Health Day, given that I entered a breakdown of sorts on that day eight years ago, one which led to counseling, medication, and a new perception of anxiety and depression.

The day the calendar changed this month is the day that history repeated itself, as another coworker announced that she was leaving for another job, choosing October 10 as her last day. We have worked together only two years, and never as closely as in the previous case. Yet she is a coworker I have liked, respected, and admired—a person who probably would be a friend if we had met at church or in some community activity. Common sense and CBT are keeping this change from becoming a crisis, but the coincidence of dates is disconcerting and ironic.

Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall is, primarily, the story of a failed romance. One of its subplots is a portrayal of friendship. Alvy and Rob are so close that they have a nickname for each other—the same nickname; they each call the other “Max.” I have had some Max-like friendships in the past: people whose thoughts and feelings and lives seemed to mesh with mine. A children’s rhyme teaches us to “make new friends, but keep the old: one is silver, and the other gold.” Aside from family, I have not been successful at holding on to the gold, nor have I acquired much silver in recent years. The truth is that I find it easier to confide my Mayan apocalypse experiences to my virtual friends on the Internet than to share them with anyone I see face-to-face on a regular basis.

When the virus crisis began to change our lives this spring, I thought I would achieve much productive writing. Instead, my writing has been mired in other issues. I have finally, this month, completed a first draft of my book about Christian faith and depression; but I know that this book will require more than the usual editing and polishing before I can send it to Kindle to be published. I have other book ideas, largely supported by writing I already have done. The energy to bring those projects to completion is also lacking. Since school days, I have prided myself on completing projects before they were due. Now, some of my most important writing is being done on the last day, with very little progress taking place before it is almost too late.

I knew for a while that I would write a post about John Lennon on his eightieth birthday, October 9. The night before, as I lay in bed, I composed what I wanted to say about the Walrus. In the morning, I got to a computer and typed my tribute. When I posted it, WordPress linked the post to related posts I had written and published before. I clicked on the first linked post, which I wrote two years ago. I was stunned to see that the previous post was all but identical to the newly-crafted post. Not that I would expect myself to have new insights into John Lennon that came to me in the past two years; but it seems like one more symptom of stagnation that a new production would so closely ape the work I did two years ago.

Mental health has many facets: sudden appearances of illness and long declines into illness, exercise of self-control and loss of control to situations or bad choices, being conquerors or being victims, seizing control of life or surrendering control of life. These issues are complex; they raise questions not easily answered. Generally, the one-day-at-a-time approach is best, with confidence that “the sun’ll come out tomorrow.” And the Lord who is control provides help and blessings along the way, when we have eyes to see his grace. We all struggle; we all help each other to get through these times. J.

Tropical depression Beta

I have already used all my tropical depression jokes. The rain began before dawn yesterday, brought by Beta, and it has continued right up to the present. The gentle splatter repeats drop by drop, minute after minute, hour after hour. Already autumn has begun. Mornings are dark and cool. We won’t change our clocks until November, in the senseless pretense that we are saving daylight to use in the evening. It would be easy to remain in bed, listening to the rhythm of the falling rain. But there are tasks to accomplish, deeds that must be done, and a tropical depression is no excuse to be lazy.

All year I’ve been working on a book about depression—the inner kind, not the weather kind. My working title remains The Child of Light and the Black Dog: Depression and Christian Faith. Thinking about depression, analyzing depression, describing and discussing depression: these are depressing things to do. The first draft is nearly done, but I expect to do a lot of rewriting, reorganizing, and other editorial work. Yesterday I tried to summarize the ideas found in The Dark Night of the Soul, and I realized that I will have to sit down and read the entire book again to be able to share it properly.

Last night I was reading in the family library. On a whim, I reached out and grabbed a biography of Ernest Hemingway and read the last fifty pages. His own story, as you may recall, does not have a happy ending. In some ways I relate to Hemingway—we were both born and raised in the western suburbs of Chicago, and both of us write. Of course his writing brought him fame and fortune, something my writing has not been able to achieve. He traveled and saw more of the world than I have seen. Also, I don’t own a gun. But I’ve read Hemingway’s novels and short stories. Even though we disagree about some important matters, I admire Hemingway’s ability to see the world and to describe it vividly. I also admire his ability to see into people’s thoughts and feelings and to describe them vividly too.

Twenty-five years after Hemingway died, his publisher printed an edited edition of one of Hemingway’s unfinished projects. Garden of Eden is a powerful novel, at least in its abridged form. It describes sordid and ugly actions by sordid and ugly people, but its narrative is not easily forgotten. Ten years ago a movie was made from the novel, although it was not widely distributed. I happened upon a description of that movie recently, which may have contributed to my impulse to read again about the author.

Many things combine to create a tropical depression. Clouds and rain and wind are only part of the story. We are what we eat; but we also are what we read, what we remember, and what we ponder. We cannot always choose our frame of mind; often it is imposed upon us. Some days we can do no more than take one step at a time, firmly confident that each step measures a little more progress toward our destination. J.

When I find myself in times of trouble

John Cassian (360-435) wrote that times of trouble come to the Christian from three causes: as a result of that Christian’s sin, as an attack from Satan, and as testing from the Lord. Regretfully, Cassian did not offer any clues how to discern which of these three is the result of any particular trouble. Moreover, he did not address the likelihood that a trouble may come from two of these causes or even from all three at once.

The best defense against the first source of trouble is a life of continual repentance and faith. Repentance is not a practice that can be accomplished once and concluded; repentance is an ongoing condition, a continual element in the Christian life. In his model prayer, Jesus taught his followers to pray “forgive us our trespasses” immediately after praying “give us this day our daily bread.” Like our need for food, our need for forgiveness comes each day. Each day we sin and need a Savior; each day our Savior is present for us, removing all our sins by his work. Each day we turn to him in faith, trusting his promises. Each day he keeps his promises. Therefore, if trouble should come because of our sin, the work of Christ removes that sin and ends that trouble. Our daily repentance and faith assures us that any trouble we have is not a result of our sins—because those sins are already forgiven and forgotten by God. Our daily repentance and faith assures us that any trouble we face must be an attack from Satan (or from the sinful world around us) or a test from the Lord, or (most likely) both at once.

In today’s world, tests are seen as examinations in school, exercises in which the teacher discovers how much each student has learned. God does not have to test us in this way; he already knows what we believe and the strength of that faith. The origin of the idea of testing, and its meaning in Biblical times, comes from refineries. Metals are tested by enduring heat: impurities are burned away, so that the surviving metal is more pure. So God permits Satan and the sinful world to test his people, putting us through the heat to purify our faith. God does not test us because he hates us, and God does not test us because he doubts us; God tests us to strengthen us and to purify our love for him.

Job was tested by Satan. Satan was permitted to strip away Job’s wealth and to kill Job’s children. He then was permitted to strike Job with a disease along the order of chicken pox or shingles. Job’s wife told him to reject God, but Job continued to trust God. Job’s three friends visited Job and sat with him in silence. (Their presence during his trouble was supportive friendship, a model that should be imitated.) Job endured depression, part of the test, and Job spoke about his problems. His friends tried to answer his questions, becoming part of his affliction and part of his test. They told Job that God does not make mistakes, that Job deserved whatever was happening to him, and that Job could end his trouble by identifying his sin, repenting, returning to God, and trusting God. Even in his depression, even in his questions, Job had not stopped trusting God. He rejected the suggestion of his friends that he deserved to suffer. In the end, God vindicated Job, telling his friends that they were wrong, but offering to forgive their sin against God when Job interceded for them.

God never answered Job’s questions about why Job was suffering. God did not tell Job that Job was being attacked by Satan (although God’s allegory of Leviathan, the sea monster, was a huge hint about Satan and his opposition to Job). Following the test of Satan’s attack, God restored Job’s wealth, giving him twice as property as he had lost. Ten more children were born to Job. They did not replace the ten children who had died; Job was now the father of twenty children—ten alive with him on earth, and ten alive with God in Paradise, waiting for the resurrection.

Job suffered, even though he did not deserve to suffer. His troubles were not caused by his sins; his sins were removed by his Redeemer and could not bring trouble to Job. Job became a picture of the Redeemer, of God’s Son Jesus Christ. Jesus also would suffer without deserving to suffer. He would endure the cross, not because of his own sins (for Jesus never sinned); he would endure the cross on behalf of all the sinners of the world, including Job, his children, his wife, and his friends.

In times of trouble, Christians can be pictures of Jesus, as Job was a picture of Jesus. We accept trouble, not because we deserve it, but because we are living on a battlefield. Satan and the sinful world attack the children of light. We respond by trusting God, the Source of life and light. Instead of examining ourselves to see what we have done to deserve trouble, we repent of our sins and trust God’s promises that all our sins have been removed. Testing strengthens us, burning away impurities, drawing us closer to God. Whatever hardship or loss we endure, we can use it to remind ourselves of the cross of Christ and the victory he has already won on our behalf. J.