Maybe now I can cheer up…

“So, J., what did you do this weekend?”

Well, aside from church and sleeping and eating, I also moved some chairs around the house. You see, I’ve got this comfortable chair that we bought when we moved into the house some years ago. It was my main chair for watching television. I’ve seen many movies from that chair. I watched the Chicago Cubs win the World Series while sitting in that chair. When this year’s virus crisis kept us from gathering in family groups, I watched my daughter get married while sitting in that chair. When the sirens were blowing, I generally sat in that chair and watched the television coverage of where the storms were hitting and who needed to take cover. (One tornado came within a mile of our house while I was sitting in that chair.)

This spring we replaced the carpeting in that room and ended up redesigning the room. We got rid of our old AV storage and replaced it with new shelving, and at the same time we mounted the television on the wall. Now the family sofa is centered in front of the TV, and my old comfortable chair had retreated into a corner. I rarely sat in it any more. I decided this weekend to move that favorite chair into the library/reading room and put the chair I had been using there into the corner of the den/television room.

I am not as possessive of that chair as Archie Bunker was of his favorite chair. Other members of the household—including cats—have used that chair without any objection from me. Even when it was a new show, I recognized All in the Family as political propaganda, an attempt to persuade Americans that conservative politics are inevitably linked to racism and intolerance. Fifty years later, many Americans still believe that message. So please do not mistake me for Archie Bunker, even if I do have a favorite chair.

Also, I helped my daughter with some body work on her car. Four years ago, she was legally stopped at a stop sign shortly before midnight, and a white pickup truck took the corner too wide and struck her fender. The driver was, of course, uninsured. All these years she has been driving a car with a dented fender, and the rust was increasing on the fender. So, she did some research about the cost of replacement. All along she and I assumed that the work would need to be done at a body shop and would cost several hundred dollars. Last week, though, my daughter found the part for her car available online for sixty dollars, and she found a YouTube video showing how to replace a fender. So, I helped—but she did most of the work. It took a long time to get the old fender off—it would have been far easier if the car was put on a rack and the wheel was removed, because many of those bolts are hard to reach with the wheel in place. We finally got it off, though, and got the new piece in place. She is very happy to be driving a car that is less damaged than it was. She has requested new seat covers as a Christmas gift.

Oh, and this weekend I also published my latest book on Kindle and Amazon. My writing project for 2020 was The Child of Light and the Black Dog: Depression and Christian Faith. The publishing effort was a struggle that took part of Saturday and part of Sunday, because the publishing software didn’t like my files. (Also, the car repair took some time away from wrestling with the publisher.) The book is finally available, though—three dollars for the Kindle version and six for the print version.

With the book finally out of the way, I hope I can escape the cloud of darkness that hovered over its writing. Of course the election is looming on the horizon; but once that is decided and out of the way, perhaps a cheerful holiday season is on its way. J.

Social media distancing

This week one of my cousins sent me a message on Facebook, commenting that I have been quiet lately and asking if everything is all right. I waited a couple of days, then replied to her message, saying that I have been spending little time on Facebook recently. I proceeded to suggest that avoiding Facebook was good for my blood pressure.

I was tempted to go on to say that avoiding Facebook is also good for handling anxiety and depression and maintaining sobriety, but I didn’t want to concern her.

Actually, I have been lurking on Facebook, just not posting or commenting or even liking posts. When I feel my patience dwindling, I quickly turn off Facebook and visit somewhere else. Another of my cousins posted a link to the news story about the five hundred children from Mexico who were taken to the US border and left unclaimed; their parents still cannot be located. This cousin proceeded to say that anyone who still supports President Trump should unfriend him immediately. I was tempted, but I neither unfriended my cousin nor commented on his post. It is better to ignore such provocations and move on than to get involved in ugly political debate.

I am looking forward to election night—partly because of my ongoing interest in national politics, and partly in hope of a sense of closure for the year’s ugliness. I realize that I will probably go to bed that night not yet knowing who won the election—in fact, it might take days to count all the votes and declare a winner in the “swing states.” The media outlets that constantly remind us how far ahead Candidate Biden is in the polls and how desperate President Trump’s campaign must be feeling will have egg on their faces again next month, as the polls once again fail to judge correctly which Americans bother to vote and which have an opinion which they will not express with their ballots. Voter turnout will be key; President Trump motivated many citizens who do not usually vote to take part in the process four years ago. With the help of the national media, he may be drawing those same voters—who did not vote in 2018—to cast their ballots once again in his favor.

Last night during the debate, President Trump predicted not only that he will win the election but that Republicans will again reclaim the House of Representatives. Obviously, for President Trump that is a best case scenario. The national media not only expects the Democrats to keep the House but thinks that they might gain a narrow majority in the Senate as well. Once again, voter turnout will be the key. The campaigns and their advertisements are no longer designed to win over undecided voters; their purpose at this point is to motivate voters and persuade them to express their feelings with their votes.

Last night’s debate presented the President Trump that the Republicans want voters to see and also the Candidate Biden that Republicans want voters to see. Citizens who watched the debate saw a President who is in control, understands the issues, and has answers for the empty rhetoric of his opponent. They also saw a candidate who hesitates and stammers under pressure, who renounces several of the passions of his base supporters, and whose motivational campaign statements are becoming increasingly tired and worn.

We are still at the point where anything can happen. When the election results are announced, many people will be unhappy. My family is preparing as if for a winter storm, making sure we have enough supplies to shelter in place for several days in November. Somehow, by God’s grace, we will get through this together, and when the smoke clears, we will still have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. 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.

Life and the Black Dog of depression

In the 1979 movie All That Jazz, Joe Gideon (like the movie’s director and co-writer Bob Fosse) is a successful Broadway and Hollywood choreographer and director who lives life on the edge. He drives himself at work, he drinks and takes drugs, he sleeps around, and he pushes himself to the limit. He both figuratively and literally flirts with death (the literal Death portrayed by Jessica Lange). All That Jazz can be viewed as a brutally analysis of Fosse’s own life, but it also speaks about the choices many other people make in their lives.

What drives people like Joe Gideon to live life on the edge? Often the cause is emptiness within. Stressed by life with its ups and downs, they embrace the downs and overlook the ups. They choose death over life, not suddenly and violently, but gradually, deliberately, and knowingly. The Black Dog of anxiety and depression has more power over them than they have over themselves, and it drives them over the cliffs of despair.

A Christian understands why unbelievers feel this way and act this way. A Christian might wonder why a fellow Christian feels this way and acts this way. Jesus tells us not to be anxious (Matthew 6:25). Paul identifies the greatest gifts of the spirit as faith, hope, and love. If a Christian has no hope, one may suppose, that Christian also has no faith.

I know a man—I’ll call him Martin. Like me, Martin has struggled for years with anxiety and depression. Like most people, this spring has been difficult for Martin: fear of the virus, fear of damage to the economy, fear of violence in the streets, fear of what might happen to himself, to his family, to his job, and to his neighborhood. Martin has not turned to all the wrong answers that Joe Gideon tried. Martin has been faithful in his marriage. He has taken no illegal drugs and abused no prescription drugs. Martin does try his best at his job, but he is not driven to work to the point of exhaustion. But Martin does consume alcohol. He calls himself a “heavy drinker.” That mistake recently put Martin in a very uncomfortable position.

Martin was sitting in church next to his wife when the preacher began the sermon. One of the first things the preacher mentioned was the distress felt by family members when one of them drinks too much. Martin wondered whether his wife had been talking to the preacher about his drinking. (She hadn’t.) The preacher went on to speak of other things, including the grace of God and His power to overcome all evils, even those we bring upon himself. Toward the end of the sermon, the preacher began to list the many idols people put in the place of God, and he dwelt particularly on the sins of alcohol and drug abuse.

As the sermon wound to a close, Martin felt as if things were going dark. It was not like entering a tunnel; it was more like on television when the picture fades to black. He heard the Amen to the sermon; he heard the congregation begin to sing the next hymn. The next thing Martin remembers is lying in the aisle of the church with an usher pounding his chest, performing CPR.

Martin was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He spent the afternoon in the emergency room; then he was in another room for observation for another twenty-four hours. The hospital workers paid closest attention to the working of Martin’s heart. (And, it appears, Martin’s heart is good.) But Martin admitted more than once to the hospital workers that he is a heavy drinker. One of those workers told Martin that he had been admitted with an elevated alcohol content in his blood. In her opinion, he had suffered an alcohol-related seizure. (Other hospital workers said it was not a seizure; aside from blacking out, the symptoms of seizure were absent.)

Martin went home after promising to quit drinking. He was given a drug to reduce the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Along with follow-up visits with his family doctor and with a cardiologist, Martin also followed up with his pastor. They discussed the sin of alcohol dependence, and they discussed God’s grace and forgiveness.

Depression is not a sin. Depression is a symptom that something is wrong—whether physical or emotional or physical. No one cure fits all kinds of depression. A great many factors need to be analyzed: diet, sleep, exercise, stress, fear, guilt, and chemical balances in the body. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—bears a strong feeling that life is not worth living. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—feels unneeded, unwanted, and unloved. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—will take risks with his or her life. Some risks are sudden and violent: a gunshot, a self-strangling, a strong poisoning, a deliberate car crash. Other risks are slower and less certain: drug and alcohol abuse, reckless driving, overeating or undereating (anorexia), and more.

I cannot suggest much advice about how to help a nonbeliever in this situation, Perhaps persuade him or her that family and friends do care, and that he or she is contributing positive energy to them and to the world. Perhaps ask if they want to live to see their daughter’s wedding, meet their grandchildren, watch those grandchildren grow. Many things in life have meaning apart from God’s blessings; but God’s blessings are the greatest reason of all to keep on living.

The Christian is promised a better life in a better world. This promise is not motivation to end this life and start that new life as soon as possible. This promise is motivation to do our best in this lifetime as we prepare for the better life that is coming. “You will not kill”: this applies, not only to the lives of our neighbors, but also to our own lives. We are managers of the bodies God has made. He intends for us to take care of them. Christians who smoke, Christians who drink to excess, Christians who overeat or who starve themselves: these are not false Christians who have lost their faith. These are sinners who need a Savior and who already know their Savior. These our brothers and sisters who need and deserve our love and encouragement. These are part of the family of God, the body of Christ, whose struggles are more visible than the struggles faced by every Christian in this world.

Joe Gideon flirted with death. So did Martin. In a way, so does every sinner, even those sinners who are simultaneously saints. Viruses and terrorists are not the only dangers in this world; sometimes we are dangers to ourselves. But God says, to Martin and to all of us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). J.

Experiencing technical difficulties (a rambling update for my online friends)

My WordPress presence has been somewhat limited these last few weeks because of assorted (and unrelated) technical difficulties. At times I wonder whether these difficulties are a Sign that I should curtail WordPress activity and focus more attention on other writing.

(On a related note, I am awaiting shipment of my latest book, much of which appeared on this blog as meditations on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. I gave the book the title Blessed with Perfect Righteousness to emphasize the Gospel themes I identified in these meditations.)

As of the beginning of December, my job required me to spend considerably more time than before as a reference librarian in the research room. The new leadership of the library system decided that the department where I work was costing the library too much money, so our budget was cut, some employees lost their jobs, and the rest of us have to replace the missing workers on the schedule. Since I often spend two hours at the reference desk with no one to help, that seemed to be an opportunity to keep up with WordPress, both writing my posts and reading, liking, and commenting upon other posts. For a while that pattern was working. Then, one day, the computer at the desk stopped downloading WordPress correctly. I can still read posts, but all the interactive functions are kaput. Likewise, I can compose posts and publish them, but I cannot interact with readers through that computer. I don’t know what the problem is: it could be a security filter that IT has added, or it could be a fault within that one computer module. In either case, I hate to report the problem to IT since it does not impact the work I am paid to do for the library.

(Beginning today, the library computer is no longer an issue. To prevent the spread of Coronavirus, the library has closed its doors, locking out patrons and employees alike. We are being paid, just as if the library was temporarily closed for ice and snow. And some employees are still keeping the system functioning, but not in my department.)

Meanwhile, my home desktop computer is nearly eight years old, and it is very slow, especially connecting to the Internet. I can read a post, then might have to wait a minute or two before I can click the Like button. The frustration level with this computer was so high that my son donated his desktop as a replacement. It took a few days for me to transfer files from the old computer to the newer computer, but I finally got the new system up and running. I left the old computer assembled on a nearby piece of furniture in case any family members remembered something else that hasn’t been transferred. But last week the new computer began to malfunction. For some reason, the main computer is not corresponding with the monitor. When that happened on the old computer, I was able to fix the problem by removing the side panel and blowing out the accumulated dust. I did that this weekend with the new computer, and the first time I reconnected it, things started right away. Since then, it has become increasingly balky, to the point that today the computer system is not working at all. I am considering taking the computer to the nearest ubreakifix location to see if they can identify and fix the problem.

(Since I have competed the Sermon on the Mount book, my next project is to be a twelve chapter book, “Witnesses to the Lord’s Passion.” Each chapter will be the account of Christ in the latter half of Holy Week as seen from one point of view: Peter, Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Barabbas, etc. Years ago I wrote and presented some selections for this book; these I have to find and copy (while editing and improving them), while others I will write from scratch.)

I am doing what I can on this older desktop computer. I am scheduled to teach a college class this spring. Ten students signed up for the class, but only four came to the first session last Tuesday, and only two were there last Thursday. Over the weekend, the school announced that all teaching would be done online, so I have to figure out how to give quizzes and other assignments through the school’s web site. Most teachers do this already, and I have had training sessions for online teaching. But I have always preferred the classroom experience, and it seems that the students who sign up for my classes feel the same.

(Meanwhile, we have had a wet, gray, and gloomy February and March, which is not good for morale. And our family’s fifteen-year-old cat, who was getting more frail, suddenly took a turn for the worse and was essential on hospice care last week. Family members in the area were able to visit her by the end of the week. On Saturday she was taken to the veterinarian, who diagnosed renal failure and recommended euthanasia, which was then done. So yesterday I buried a cat in the growing pet cemetery behind our house.)

My prospects for a new job still seem good, although I have not heard directly from those in charge of a decision. My guess is that they will wait until after Easter before moving to the next step, which would include interviews of prospective workers. That probably means that the position will not be filled until June or July, leaving a few weeks between the retiring worker and the replacement—which probably is healthy for all involved. This delay has not stopped family members from scouting new houses in the neighborhood of the church, while making lists of what has to be done to sell the house we have now.

(And I needed to jumpstart my car after church a week ago, so I stopped by the auto parts store on the way home and bought a new battery, which they installed for me. Plus I’m trying to get my income taxes filed, which has been complicated by these computer problems. Yesterday a lot of churches canceled their services, although I did get to attend the one I had been planning to attend. I’m not sure whether the cancellations will continue for many weeks on Sundays and Wednesdays, or if yesterday was a one-time event.)

So I will try to return to WordPress when I can to continue building my political platform, to comment on current events and on the life of the Church, and to keep up with my friends. God’s blessings to you all: Keep Calm and Stay Healthy. J.

Transfiguration, Mardi Gras, and Lent

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record an event in which Jesus glowed with light. He had gone to the top of a mountain to pray, bringing with him Peter, James, and John. While he was praying, his face began to shine like the sun, and his clothing turned brilliant white, whiter than any bleach could make them. Moses and Elijah joined the four men on the mountain, speaking with Jesus about the rescue mission he was soon to fulfill in Jerusalem. (Note—this is the first time that Moses was permitted to set foot in the Promised Land. This indicates that Jesus, in his rescue mission, was completing the work that Moses had started centuries earlier.) After Peter babbled something about setting up three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, the group was surrounded by a cloud—not a natural cloud of water droplets, but the supernatural cloud of God’s glory. From this cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased—Listen to him!” The disciples fell to the ground in terror, but Jesus touched them and told them not to be afraid. When they opened their eyes, it was just the four of them again, and Jesus was no longer glowing with light.

In recent times, the custom among traditional churches has been to hear and contemplate the descriptions of this event on the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. (The traditional Christian calendar begins around the start of December with roughly four weeks of Advent. Next come the twelve days of Christmas, followed by the season of Epiphany. During this season, Christians consider the evidence that Jesus is God’s Son and the world’s Savior. After Epiphany comes the penitential season of Lent, consisting of forty days plus six Sundays. Lent concludes with Holy Week, which ushers in the seven weeks of Easter. After those seven weeks, the Church celebrates the holiday of Pentecost, and then about half a year passes before Advent starts again.) The thought of Jesus glowing with light in the presence of three apostles and two Old Testament heroes seems a fitting conclusion to the thoughts of Epiphany while Christians prepare themselves for the somber observance of Lent.

In the days that fasting was more common in Lent, Christians used up the last of their luxuries—milk, eggs, and the like—on Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday kicks off the season of Lent. How this sensible consumption of items that would spoil if they were not eaten turned into the modern Bacchanalia of Mardi Gras is not hard to guess, sinful human nature being what it is. My point is not to criticize the excesses of Mardi Gras; that would be too easy. But remembering the Transfiguration of the Lord on the last Sunday of Epiphany is itself, in a way, a Mardi Gras for traditional Christians. During Lent, Christians remember their sins and their need for a Savior; we repent. At the same time, we recall that Jesus is the Savior we need, and so we experience the joy of our salvation even in the gloom of Lent. This last Sunday of the season, remembering Christ’s Transfiguration, wraps up the glory of Epiphany for Christians.

At times Christians have overemphasized Lent and penitence and gloom and sorrow. Currently, the opposite trend seems to be stronger. Many Christians want all their spiritual experiences to be uplifting, exhilarating, and inspiring. They prefer not to talk about sin and repentance. They marginalize the cross, reducing its importance. They want to feel the glory today, to bask in the glow of Jesus, and to make every day a celebration. Like Peter, they want to extend the good times, to make permanent what God intends to be only a passing event in the life of a Christian.

God can provide beautiful times like the Transfiguration where and when he pleases. The useful times in the life of a Christian, though, are not the mountaintop experiences. The useful times are the dark nights of the soul, the times when God seems distant, the times when we believe not because faith is easy but because faith is needed. Those are the times when we grow. Those are the times when the Lord does his best work through us.

Someone has said that anxiety and depression are a normal reaction to the world as it is right now—that anyone who is not anxious and depressed simply is not paying attention. That position is overstated, but it contains a kernel of truth. We see the joy of salvation best when we understand from what evil we have been saved. The celebration of Easter is made greater by the observation of Lent. Or, as Richard Nixon said, “Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.” J.

Happy St. Valentine’s Day

I stopped by Walmart on my way home from teaching last night. I had to chuckle as I walked past the Valentine cards; three white-haired men were inspecting the cards, all standing in front of the “Wife” selections. There’s nothing like last-minute shopping for romantic gestures.

Every Leap Year I read the works of Soren Kierkegaard as part of my daily devotions. I just happen to be halfway through Stages on Life’s Way, which is very appropriate for St. Valentine’s Day. For those unfamiliar with Kierkegaard, he was a theologian in the Danish church (therefore Lutheran), although he never served a congregation. Instead, he published (at his own expense) essays on philosophy, theology, and life in general. Many of his books were written under pseudonyms, which gave Kierkegaard the freedom to pursue lines of thought that were not his own. That’s why it’s risky to quote Kierkegaard—you can never be sure that he meant what he wrote, that he wasn’t setting up a straw man through his pseudonym.

Stages on Life’s Way presents itself as a series of works found in a bookbinder’s shop and published by the bookbinder because he had no idea what had happened to the author. The first work is based on Plato’s Symposium: five men gather for a banquet, and each delivers a speech about love. The second work is a scholarly discussion of love and marriage, attributed to a certain Judge William. The third, “Guilty? Not Guilty?” is a diary supposedly fished out of a Danish lake. The diarist writes in the morning, recalling a love affair/engagement of a year before; then he writes at midnight about his sense of guilt for having broken the engagement. Since Kierkegaard had done exactly that—been engaged and broke the engagement—one might suspect that the diary is somewhat autobiographical. In actuality, the work is an exploration of romance, anxiety, depression, worry, and the like. Great reading for Valentine’s Day!

Kierkegaard is sometimes blamed for the Existentialist movement in modern philosophy. He actually was a defender of traditional Biblical Christianity. Kierkegaard insisted that faith must be subjective, but he didn’t mean that in a post-modern sense of “believe whatever you choose to believe.” Instead, he meant that theological statements must be deeply personal to have any value. A list of proofs for the existence of God is helpful to hardly anyone: the believer already believes without the proofs, and the unbeliever already rejects all the proofs that are presented.

Which brings me back to the white-haired men searching for a preprinted card that will express their love for their wife—and doing so long after the most suitable cards have already been purchased. Wouldn’t a handwritten message be more suitable than a Walmart greeting card? Or have these men run out of ways to say, “I love you”? Flowers and chocolate are nice, but nothing is more endearing than a piece of paper that has been handled and rejected by countless husbands over the past three weeks before it finally leaves the store in the hands of a desperate man a few short hours before midnight on February 13. Or so it struck me last night. J.

Dealing kindly with toxic personalities

He was gloomy and gruff, but no one ever told him to “cheer up.” He was pessimistic about everything and had a negative outlook on life, but no one ever told him to change his way of thinking. He spent his days in an emotional cloud of depression and despair, but his friends were kind and supportive, never treating him as a toxic person, never complaining that he drained all the life out of their party.

His name was Eeyore. He lived in the Hundred Acre Wood, a neighbor to Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, Owl, Tigger, Kanga and Roo, and—of course—Christopher Robin. Each of them had his or her own quirks, a unique personality that had failings as well as higher qualities. In fact, you can search the Internet and find pages that diagnose each character in the stories with a different psychological disorder. A. A. Milne was not writing a textbook about disorders, though; Milne was experimenting with various personality types to show how they function within a caring and compassionate community.

In a society that preaches tolerance for a number of aberrations, it seems that some personality types are still less acceptable than others. Introverts are expected to act like extraverts. People battling anxiety and depression are told that “its all in your head,” and they are expected to act as if everything is fine. They are told to have more faith in God, as if faithful believers (including Job and Elijah) were never depressed. They are told that God’s blessings bring joy and peace, that if they are lacking the feelings of joy and peace there is something wrong in their relationship with God. (That’s exactly what Job’s friends said to him, but God said they were wrong.) They are told to take it to the Lord in prayer, with the suggestion that if that does not lift their gloomy cloud, there must be something wrong with their prayers.

This month I re-read the books Milne wrote about the residents of the Hundred Acre Wood. I found it interesting to observe how his friends treated Eeyore. When he was moping because his tail was missing, Winnie the Pooh took it upon himself to hunt until he found Eeyore’s tail. When Eeyore was grumpy because it was his birthday and no one had noticed, Pooh and Piglet found gifts to celebrate the occasion. Even though the gifts fell short of their intentions—Pooh emptied the honey pot on his way to Eeyore’s house, and Piglet popped the balloon—still, the gifts meant a great deal to Eeyore.

The closest anyone approached trying to correct Eeyore’s attitude was the time that Eeyore complained that he had few visitors, and Owl pointed out that Eeyore could be a visitor in other people’s houses rather than waiting at home for a visitor to arrive. That’s helpful advice and rather mild criticism for a character that would be described in many families, workplaces, and gatherings as a toxic personality, always complaining, never happy, and taxing the happiness of others.

Pooh may have been a Bear of Very Little Brain, but the size of his heart more than compensated for his lack of a brain. Somehow he knew how to treat Eeyore and the rest of his neighbors—never with complaining or criticism, but always with acceptance, helpfulness, and good cheer. Good friends are a blessing from the Lord. Pooh sensed without thinking it through that the best way to have friends was to be a friend, even to negative and gloomy neighbors. J.

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.

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.