Five stages of waking up

Some people greet each day with a smile. They open their eyes and thank God for another day to be alive. They consider themselves blessed to be able to get out of bed once again and get started on a brand new day—the first day of the rest of their lives, they say.

Others do not wake so quickly and easily. Leaving bed is a chore and a burden. The new day holds no promise of good things to come. They would prefer to delay its beginning for a while.

In fact, recent studies have shown that the second group of people goes through five stages while waking and getting out of bed. They may not experience them in the same way, to the same degree, or even in the same order. Still, the pattern is regular enough to be described. The five stages of waking are anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

ANGER: That blasted alarm clock! Why does it have to be so loud and so early? If the alarm clock is not to blame, if the sun is shining through the window or the birds are singing, the anger is no less. And if waking is due to the neighbor mowing, the anger is all the greater.

DENIAL: It’s not morning, not yet. Someone has made a mistake. I set the alarm clock for the wrong time. And what business does anyone have getting up so early in the day? I need sleep more than I need to get up and get anything done this morning.

BARGAINING: This is why snooze buttons were invented. Just ten minutes more in bed, or maybe just five minutes. (I learned in college—without the help of professors or textbooks—the dangers of denial and bargaining when combined with a snooze button. For this reason, I always place the alarm clock across the room from the bed. I cannot switch it off before my feet have touched the floor.)

DEPRESSION: I’ll just stay in bed. The rest of the world can get through the day without me. I have nothing positive to contribute. Sleep is the only thing I’m good at. (This is no joke. People battling depression report that getting out of bed is the hardest task of the day. Counseling, awareness, and—in some cases—medication can be helpful in this regard.)

ACCEPTANCE: In most cases, the anger and denial and bargaining and depression are swallowed by the real need to start the day. The bedcovers are pushed back, the feet hit the floor, and its on to the bathroom to start the routine: brush teeth, shower, comb hair, get dressed, and whatever else needs to be done before breakfast and the first mug of coffee.

Lest perchance thou dost believe that I am inventing all these stages out of thin air, consider how William Shakespeare depicted them (although not in the proper order) in Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 5:

 

JULIET (Denial)

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.

It was the nightingale, and not the lark,

That pierc’d the fearful hollow of thine ear;

Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree.

Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

ROMEO (acceptance, depression)

It was the lark, the herald of the morn,

No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks

Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.

Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day

Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

JULIET (denial, bargaining)

Yond light is not day-light, I know it, I;

It is some meteor that the sun exhal’d

To be to thee this night a torch-bearer

And light thee on thy way to Mantua.

Therefore stay yet, thou need’st not to be gone.

ROMEO (denial, bargaining)

Let me be ta’en, let me be put to death,

I am content, so thou wilt have it so.

I’ll say yon grey is not the morning’s eye,

’Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia’s brow;

Nor that is not the lark whose notes do beat

The vaulty heaven so high above our heads.

I have more care to stay than will to go.

Come, death, and welcome! Juliet wills it so.

How is’t, my soul? Let’s talk, it is not day.

JULIET (anger, depression, acceptance)

It is, it is! Hie hence, be gone, away!

It is the lark that sings so out of tune,

Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.

Some say the lark makes sweet division;

This doth not so, for she divideth us.

Some say the lark and loathed toad change eyes;

O now I would they had chang’d voices too,

Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray,

Hunting thee hence with hunt’s-up to the day.

O now be gone, more light and light it grows.

ROMEO (depression)

More light and light, more dark and dark our woes!

 

 

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Of sin and sickness

At one extreme we can see that we each need to take responsibility for our own lives. We all made choices, whether good or bad, and then we have to live with the consequences of those choices. If we have problems in this world, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

At the opposite extreme, we can see that we are all victims. We are shaped by things we cannot control: by DNA, by our environment, by chemicals in us or around us. When we make mistakes, and when we have problems, we deserve compassion rather than judgment.

We all land somewhere between these two extremes. Sometimes when we try to talk about responsibility, we talk past each other, addressing ourselves to the extreme position we think we are hearing rather than to what the other person is actually saying. What can be said, then, to try to find a meeting point where genuine discussion can take place, consisting more of light than of heat?

  • A sin is still a sin. When any of us does what God forbids, or fails to do what God requires, God holds us responsible. He does not allow us to blame the devil, or the way our parents raised us, or television, or video games, or whatever chemicals might have been involved.
  • Sin damages creation, including people. “The wages of sin is death,” and all the other pains and sorrows that afflict people in this world are likewise the results of sin. There is no one-to-one correspondence between sin and suffering, though. Sin can be regarded as a pollution that corrupts the entire world and harms all people.
  • Life is not fair. God is just and fair, but evil is random and unfair. God limits the harm done by evil, but he permits evil to happen so people can see the difference between good and evil and prefer what is good. Moreover, if God were limited to being just and fair, the sacrifice of Jesus could not redeem and rescue sinners. God permits the injustice of evil so he can provide the greater blessings prompted by his love, his grace, and his mercy.
  • In one sense, every problem in this world is a spiritual problem. Because all problems flow from sin—from rebellion against God—the only ultimate solution for all problems is the righteousness of Christ and his redemption.
  • On the other hand, we are living in a material world. Nearly all of our problems will have a material component. In this sin-polluted world our bodies are vulnerable to accidents, injuries, diseases, allergies, poisons, and the like. In addition to the benefits of God’s grace to take away our sins, we need doctors, nurses, therapists, pharmacists, counselors, and other professionals to help us with our problems. At times we need medicines, casts, crutches, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and other material assistance to support us with our material problems.
  • Mental and emotional sicknesses, including anxiety and depression, also have material components. Among the possible causes of mental illnesses are poor nutrition, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, current stress, previous trauma, abuse, chemical imbalance, physical illness, side-affects of treatment for physical illness, guilt and shame over ongoing sins or past sins, and many more.
  • Among the appropriate responses to mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression, are a physical check-up, faith-based counseling, secular counseling, medication, and hospitalization. Because these illnesses have so many different causes, no single response deals with all cases. A medication or a faith-based counselor that restores the health of one person might be unable to help another or even harmful to another.
  • Mental illness is not a choice. While it might appear that one can address another person’s eating disorder by providing him or her with food, much more is happening inside that person than a choice not to eat. People with depression do not want to feel depressed; they want to feel better. While examples can be given of mental illnesses that began with bad choices—substance abuse and addiction, for one—the person with the illness cannot and should not be expected to fix his or her problems by his or her own strength.
  • Healthy living and good choices can reduce a person’s vulnerability to many illnesses, including mental illnesses. However, they do not guarantee perfect health. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or depression can all strike a person who has made good and healthy choices for a lifetime. None of these illnesses is the result of a particular sin or of committing more sins than the healthy person without that illness.

I could go on. Much more remains to be said. Perhaps this is enough, though, to begin a useful conversation. J.

Is depression sinful?

I have been out of the dark days long enough that I can begin to look back at my depression with an analytic mind. I still remember waking up in the morning and regretting it, dreading the coming day. I remember driving across bridges and studying the rail, wondering if it was possible to flip the car over the rail and down into the river. I remember using coffee as a drug to get started in the morning, and using whiskey or gin as a drug to fall asleep at night. I remember ignoring advice about saving for retirement because I did not expect or intend to live that long.

Some people say that depression is sinful. (I did some internet surfing to fact-check this statement. Some sites are pretty harsh about depression and anxiety, calling them sinful choices and not treatable illnesses.) They quote verses such as Hebrews 13:5-6, Philippians 4:6, and I Peter 5:7 as evidence that, when a person has depression, that person is sinning. I respond that depression, like anger, is not a sin. But depression, like anger, is a powerful temptation to sin. People who have depression are likely to make sinful choices that confound their families and their friends. Depression is not something they choose for themselves; depression is something that happened to them.

Being sad for a few days is not depression. Mourning a loss for a time is not depression. Depression is lingering darkness of the mind and heart. Depression is absence of hope. Depression is desire for destruction, the lack of will to continue living. Depression can lead to suicide. It can lead to other forms of self-harm, including cutting one’s body, abusing alcohol and other drugs, or trying to reinvent one’s self. Depression might cause a person to quit school, to leave a rewarding job, to refuse all invitations to spend time with friends, or to make damaging self-revelations on social media.

Depression is an illness—or, to be more accurate, depression is a symptom that something is wrong. Many causes can lead to depression. They include poor nutrition, lack of sleep or of exercise, and abuse of drugs or alcohol. (Yes—substance abuse can be a cause of depression or a result of depression. It can be both, creating a vicious spiral.) Depression can be the result of a chemical imbalance in the body. It can be a symptom of an illness or a side effect of the treatment for an illness.  Depression can be caused by ongoing stress or by childhood trauma, whether remembered or forgotten. Depression can have genetic causes, as people from some families are predisposed toward depression. Depression can be caused by spiritual problems, such as feeling guilt over one’s sins. Often depression is the result of several of these causes rather than only one of them.

Because depression has many possible causes, different things help different people to battle depression. Medication is helpful to some people but not to others. Counseling helps some people but not others. Prayer and meditation help some people but not others. Finding new hobbies or ways to be active helps some people but not others. When a person has persevered through depression and now feels better, those things that helped that one person might not be any help to another person who has depression.

When one has depression, other peoples’ hope and joy can seem like illusions. Optimists appear oblivious to reality. After all the world is a terrible place, stained by sin, and people with depression find it easy to believe that they are the only ones who see things as they really are. When someone else tries to correct their perspective, that helpful friend is likely to be told that he or she just doesn’t understand.

 Even if it appears to outsiders that a person with depression has chosen to be that way and to stay that way, accusing that person of sinning is not helpful. A sense of guilt has never helped a person shake off depression; being made to feel guilty only worsens the problem. The book of Job is a classic study in depression. Job’s friends were right to sit with him and comfort him with their presence. They were wrong to challenge his perceptions and to tell him that he was causing his own problems. God never told Job why Job was allowed to suffer, but God did say that Job’s friends were wrong and that they would be forgiven when Job prayed for them.

Being present with a person who has depression helps. Listening helps. Caring helps. Judging, arguing, and accusing do not help. Depression is connected to sin, but depression itself is not sinful. Depression is a result of living in a world polluted by sin and evil, just as influenza and cancer and broken bones are results of living in a world polluted by sin and evil. Rather than accepting all these problems, the better approach is to find solutions for these problems, whether or not those solutions include medication, counseling, or prayer. Thanking God for every kind of help he provides, we each do our best to be productive in our own lives and helpful to those around us. J.

Goethe’s Werther

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is a pivotal figure in European literary history. Coming at the end of the Baroque Period (also described as the Enlightenment), he was one of the writers who introduced Romanticism into European literature. Goethe was a poet, playwright, novelist, travelogue-writer, scientist, lawyer, and government advisor. He attempted (unsuccessfully) to improve upon Isaac Newton’s theories regarding light; he also studied the shapes of rock crystals and tried to make parallel studies of living creatures.

Of his many writings, two stand out as highlights of his long career. One is his verse interpretation of the legend of Faust, a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and wisdom. Goethe worked on this project for most of his professional life. The other is his early novel, Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers, translated as the Sorrows (or the Suffering) of Young Werther. Based very loosely upon some of Goethe’s own experiences as a young man, along with accounts he heard about other young men, the novel explores issues about mental and emotional health in a way deeply profound for the early nineteenth century.

Werther, the title character, is highly intelligent but deplorably lacking in social skills. He is impulsive, obsessive, anxious, and given to bouts of deep depression. That the other characters in the novel are unable to perceive or comprehend the depths of Werther’s emotional struggles is a key to the plot. That inability is still widespread today in spite of a century of psychological studies.

A previous crisis, only vaguely mentioned in the novel, causes Werther to relocate into a small German town where he meets and becomes enamored of Charlotte (Lotte), the eldest daughter of the local magistrate. Lotte and her fiancé Albert willingly befriend Werther, unaware of his obsessive tendencies or the damage those tendencies will wreak. When Werther tries to share the emotional storms in his mind and heart, Albert and Lotte respond casually. Werther defends the act of suicide, which Albert scorns as unimaginable for any person of intelligence. As his obsession with Lotte deepens, Werther realizes he must leave the area. He does so, and in his absence Lotte and Albert are married. Werther’s lack of social skills brings him into another crisis, which sends him careening back into Lotte’s hometown. His deepening gloom leads to a suicidal depression; none of his friends and associates understand what is happening to Werther or know how to help him.

Most of the novel is presented as letters and diary entries written by Werther, although at times Goethe must add some third-person paragraphs to fill gaps in the story. That Goethe closely associated himself with Werther is revealed in several details, including the fact that the author and character share their birthday (August 28).

Werther was a bestseller and established Goethe’s reputation as a great author. For the rest of his life, he was a celebrity, as famous as contemporaries such as Napoleon and Beethoven. Young men in Europe imitated Werther’s clothing and even his suicide. Werther remains a powerful description of mental illness, one which can be read with profit by anyone seeking to understand obsession and depression. J.

Thank God for Prozac!

It’s been a crummy sort of week. I haven’t even felt much like writing, which is not like me at all. A lot of reasons feed into that feeling: my disappointment last weekend, tension over a major test I’m taking next Wednesday, summer heat and humidity, and the ongoing onslaught of bad news about hatred, violence, and other such ugliness. I’m not the only one struggling: some of my friends are describing their struggles as well, both online and in person.

My friends have an additional burden that I have not needed to face this week. Their family members mean well, but they are trying to support my friends with the usual vacuous platitudes that are so popular at times like these. You know the type: count your blessings and you’ll feel better; be more active and you’ll forget your problems; just remember that Jesus loves you and everything will be fine; your problems aren’t real, anyhow—they only exist in your head.

My problems only exist in my head? An inner ear infection might exist only in my head, and that wouldn’t make it less real. Anxiety and depression are not solved by bromides: they need a stronger medicine. We are complex beings, and solutions that help one person will do nothing for another and may even harm a third person. Anxiety and depression are symptoms of some sort of imbalance among my body, my mind, and my spirit. Many things can cause that imbalance. Some are solved by better nutrition and more sleep. Some are solved by prayer or meditation. Some are improved by counseling. Some are improved by medication. No panacea covers all the possible causes of anxiety and depression, but well-meant remarks like those quoted above are almost certain to fail to help.

I am puzzled by people who speak against medications that help battle anxiety and depression. For the most part they accept the need for medicines that lower blood pressure or reduce cholesterol, they will swallow a pill for pain relief or freedom from allergies, and they have nothing but compassion for people on crutches, people in wheelchairs, and others whose problems are obvious. Mention an anti-depressant, though, and they begin to speak darkly of conspiracies between pharmaceutical companies and doctors meant to rob perfectly normal people of their money and their health.

I am not suggesting that any person should be allowed to ingest any substance that makes him or her feel better. I am saying that anxiety and depression are real problems that deserve real treatment. If a pill or two can give a sufferer relief, then who is entitled to criticize them? When Mrs. Dim decides to mow her grass before 7 a.m., and when drivers in traffic are doing fooling and dangerous things, and when my future career is very much in question, I’m grateful that a substance exists that helps me deal with my feelings.

For years I thought feelings needed to be ignored. As courage is not a lack of fear, but is doing the right thing in spite of fear, so I believed that virtue always consisted of ignoring one’s feelings and doing the right thing. Life is much easier now that I’ve been guided on a different path, and trusting a medicine or two to help me handle bad feelings does not mean that I trust God any less. I thank God for helpful medicine just as I thank him for doctors, nurses, counselors, physical therapists, and the many other ways he provides to assist the healing of bodies and minds. Whatever is good, whatever is beneficial, whatever is helpful, it all comes from the Creator of the universe who means it to be used for our benefit. For that, I can only give thanks. J.

 

First Friday Fiction–A Story without an End

Actually, this story has four endings. Comment and tell me which one you like the best. J.

More than a year of counseling had failed to prepare Stan for the encounter in his therapist’s waiting room that happened one morning last week.

Stan’s doctor had recommended counseling to help Stan deal with nearly constant anxiety accompanied by occasional bouts of depression. The counselor asked Stan questions about his anxiety and what triggered its symptoms. They spoke about his childhood, his parents and siblings, his experiences at school, and his career. They spoke about obsessions and compulsions, about the feeling of responsibility, and about the feeling of guilt. “What’s one thing that makes you feel guilty?” the counselor asked.

“When my wife is in a bad mood or is quiet, I start asking myself what I did wrong. Whenever she’s having a bad day, I assume that it’s my fault and that she’s angry at me. I’m the same at work—if a co-worker is unhappy, my mind leaps to the conclusion that I’ve done something wrong.”

“You feel that way even if you know that you didn’t do anything wrong?”

“All the time. In my head, I know that people have bad days and it’s usually not my fault, but in my heart I always feel as though I’m to blame for their troubles.”

“I see. What’s another thing that makes you feel guilty?”

“At work, I never feel like I’m working hard enough or getting enough things done. If I take a few minutes to check something on the internet, I feel guilty. Or if I’m behind schedule on a project I feel guilty. I feel like my work is too messy, or too disorganized. What I do never feels good enough.”

“Do your supervisors complain about any of your work?”

“No, they always seem happy with my work. They’ve never complained about what I do. Sometimes they make suggestions to improve what I’ve done, but they do that for everyone. And I know that everyone in the office checks home email and sports scores and things like that on their work computers. No one ever gets in trouble for that, but when I do it, I still feel guilty—like I’m stealing from the company when I’m not working every minute I’m on the clock.”

The counselor nodded and wrote a few notes. “Anything else that makes you feel guilty?”

Stan sighed. “We’ve talked about this before. I still feel guilty about… liking… Mary Sue Hutchinson so much. It seems as though every time she comes to mind, something bad happens to me or my family. My car has a flat tire, or my daughter runs out of gas, or the microwave stops working. It’s as though I’m being punished for thinking about her.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“Three years now. Ever since she left the office to take another job.”

“And you still like her?”

“As much as ever. I know that I shouldn’t, and I try not to think about her any more, but somehow I just can’t stop.”

Again, the counselor nodded. “And all this time you’ve been beating yourself up over the fact that you like this woman. Does your wife know? Has this caused problems at home?”

“No, I don’t think my wife knows. And it hasn’t caused any problems between us—just the cars, the microwave, the computer….”

“But you know that those things have nothing to do with…” The counselor checked his notes. “With Mary Sue. You don’t believe God is punishing you for thinking of her.”

Stan shook his head. “I know God doesn’t work that way. I believe in forgiveness; I really do. But it feels as though I’m causing my family and me problems by letting my mind wander back to her so often.”

The counselor closed his notebook. “Stan, I’m afraid that we’re about out of time this morning. I’ll see you again in two weeks. During that time, I want you to think about this: is thinking about Mary Sue any worse than thinking about some singer or actress you find attractive? I mean, you haven’t even seen her for three years…”

“No, I haven’t.”

“And before that, the two of you never did anything wrong—you’ve told me that before.”

“It’s true; we never did anything wrong.”

“Then something else is behind this feeling of guilt. We’ll have to talk about it more next time. Another thing I want you to do—think about what you would say to Mary Sue if you suddenly ran into her again.”

Stan smiled. “I’ve thought about it for months now. If I ran into her again, I’d say something like this: ‘Mary Sue, I’m sorry if anything I said or did pushed you away from me three years ago. Both then and now, your friendship means a lot to me, more than I can say. I still remember how your encouragement at work changed my life for the better. Can we be friends again, even if that means only exchanging emails once in a while and meeting in a very public place once or twice a year?’”

“Alright. Think about that and work on it—and next time we talk, tell me what you think she would answer if you said those things to her.”

ENDING 1

As Stan stepped out of the counselor’s office, he saw a familiar person sitting alone in the waiting room. At first he didn’t believe that it was Mary Sue—he often imagined seeing her in various places, and for three years he had been wrong every time. This time there was no mistake—it was really her. As she looked up at Stan, he started to say her name, but the first two times all he could do was stutter. Finally, after a deep breath, Stan was able to blurt out what he wanted to say: “I’m sorry if anything I said or did pushed you away from me three years ago. Both then and now, your friendship means a lot to me, more than I can say. I still remember how your encouragement at work changed my life for the better. Can we be friends again, even if that means only exchanging emails once in a while and meeting in a very public place once or twice a year?”

She hesitated for a moment, obviously struggling to find the right words to say. Then she smiled weakly at Stan and said, “It’s good to see you too. Sit down and we can talk.” He found a seat. She continued, “You might not believe me after all this time, but I was horribly busy those first few months at my new job. I tried to answer your notes when I could, but I just didn’t have the time. I always appreciated your offer to get together for a cup of coffee, but that was never possible. I’m sorry I treated you as if I didn’t care, but I didn’t know what else to do. I was sad when you stopped writing, but I never knew what to say to you.” Again she smiled a small smile. “I feel guilty for letting you down. You must really hate me.”

“There’s no way I ever could hate you,” Stan exclaimed. “Even after three years, I still miss you so much that it hurts. Please tell me we can be friends again.”

“Well,” she teased, pretending to have to stop and think. Then she laughed. “Of course we can still be friends. That would make me very happy.” Her words made Stan very happy too.

ENDING 2

As Stan stepped out of the counselor’s office, he saw a familiar person sitting alone in the waiting room. At first he didn’t believe that it was Mary Sue—he often imagined seeing her in various places, and for three years he had been wrong every time. This time there was no mistake—it was really her. As she looked up at Stan, he started to say her name, but the first two times all he could do was stutter. Finally, after a deep breath, Stan was able to blurt out what he wanted to say: “I’m sorry if anything I said or did pushed you away from me three years ago. Both then and now, your friendship means a lot to me, more than I can say. I still remember how your encouragement at work changed my life for the better. Can we be friends again, even if that means only exchanging emails once in a while and meeting in a very public place once or twice a year?”

At first she seemed stunned. Then she smiled a small smile. “Sit down for a minute,” she said. “Let’s talk.”

When Stan had sat, she said, “It was no accident that I stopped answering your emails and refused your invitations to get together over a cup of coffee. I didn’t feel good treating you like that, but it’s something I had to do.”

“But why did you have to do it?” he asked.

“Don’t you see? We were getting too close to each other. It was such a relief when I had the job offer. I’m not saying that I took the other job because of you, but getting away from your staring and from hearing your voice was absolutely necessary for me.”

“I didn’t realize you hated me like that.”

“No, of course I didn’t hate you. I liked you too much, in fact. James was starting to get suspicious that I had a boyfriend. I knew I could trust you never to cross the line, but I wasn’t sure I could trust myself. We are both married, and we need to respect that about ourselves and about each other.”

“I always trusted you, and I always wondered if I could trust myself not to go too far,” Stan admitted. “But it’s been three years. After all this time, is there any way we can both be friends?”

She shook her head. “It means something that we should meet here, of all places. Three years hasn’t been enough time for me to forget about you. Has it been enough time for you to forget about me?” When he shook his head, she continued, “Obviously we both need help, or we wouldn’t be here. Let’s let some more time go by—two or three more years at least. Let’s keep getting stronger on our own, before we worry about having to trust ourselves again. The separation has been good for us; it just hasn’t been long enough yet.”

“I’ve missed you,” Stan told her. “I’m going to hurt twice as much now, missing you, knowing how you feel.”

“It’s all for the better,” she assured him. When he was at the door, and she thought he couldn’t hear her, she whispered, “And I have missed you too.”

ENDING 3

As Stan stepped out of the counselor’s office, he saw a familiar person sitting alone in the waiting room. At first he didn’t believe that it was Mary Sue—he often imagined seeing her in various places, and for three years he had been wrong every time. This time there was no mistake—it was really her. As she looked up at Stan, he started to say her name, but the first two times all he could do was stutter. Finally, after a deep breath, Stan was able to blurt out what he wanted to say: “I’m sorry if anything I said or did pushed you away from me three years ago. Both then and now, your friendship means a lot to me, more than I can say. I still remember how your encouragement at work changed my life for the better. Can we be friends again, even if that means only exchanging emails once in a while and meeting in a very public place once or twice a year?”

She looked up at him, startled and a little bit frightened. At first she didn’t seem to know what to say. Finally she invited Stan to take a seat.

“Well, I’m glad to see that you’re getting some help,” she told him. “You’ve needed it for a long time, you know.”

“Yes, I have,” Stan confessed. “I think things are going better now. But it’s such a pleasant surprise to see you again…”

She interrupted him. “Pleasant for you, maybe, but not for me,” she told me. “After three years, I still haven’t stopped feeling angry for the way you treated me. At work I was always professional. Sending me messages on my personal email was way out of line.”

“But you gave that email to all of us on your last day,” he reminded her. “You told us to keep in touch.”

“I didn’t mean it—I was just being nice,” she nearly shouted at him. “You were the only one who didn’t know that. I tried to be nice to you and let the whole thing die a natural death, but you scared me with your persistence. Why didn’t you know when enough was enough?”

Stan swallowed and said glumly, “I thought we were friends.”

“Friends are people I choose to see when I’m not at work. Look, you’re a good accountant, and you’re very helpful to the clients, or at least that was the case three years ago. I never minded complimenting you when you were doing your job, especially those times when you went above and beyond the call of duty. But please don’t think I ever felt anything more for you than respect. I’m a married woman, and my heart belongs to my husband. You had no right to interfere.”

“I never wanted to hurt you,” Stan started again.

“Stop,” she said. “You have hurt me. I didn’t think I’d ever have the chance to tell you this, but you frightened me with your intensity. You don’t hide your feelings very well, you know. You made a fool of yourself time and time again, and you made a fool of me too. People were laughing behind our backs. Please, now, just go.”

“Can’t we ever be friends?” he asked.

“We never were friends,” she said, “and we never will be friends. Let that be my last word to you.”

“I’m sorry,” Stan said as he stood, ready to walk to the door. “I’m so, so sorry.” She looked away, tapping her foot impatiently, waiting for him to leave. Stan hunted for some fitting last words to say to her, but nothing came to mind. Wordlessly, he finally turned and walked to the door. Even as his hands touched the handle, he could think of nothing more to say to her. Stan went outside and walked to his car.

ENDING 4

As Stan stepped out of the counselor’s office, he saw a familiar person sitting alone in the waiting room. At first he didn’t believe that it was Mary Sue—he often imagined seeing her in various places, and for three years he had been wrong every time. This time there was no mistake—it was really her. As she looked up at Stan, he started to say her name, but the first two times all he could do was stutter. Finally, after a deep breath, Stan was able to blurt out what he wanted to say: “I’m sorry if anything I said or did pushed you away from me three years ago. Both then and now, your friendship means a lot to me, more than I can say. I still remember how your encouragement at work changed my life for the better. Can we be friends again, even if that means only exchanging emails once in a while and meeting in a very public place once or twice a year?”

She waited a few seconds with no expression on her face. “What was your name again?” she finally asked.

Stan told her his name, but she shook her head. “Where was it that we met, and when?” she asked.

“We worked together for four years at the investment firm,” I exclaimed. “We were part of a team that did great things together. Surely you can’t have forgotten everything about your time at Linton’s!”

“I remember working at Linton’s investment firm,” she allowed, “but you can’t expect me to remember everyone else who worked there.” As he stood there, stunned, she continued, “Look, whoever you are: ever since I was in high school I’ve had boys and men following me around like little puppy dogs. You can’t expect me to keep track of all of you. Obviously you weren’t the worst, or I would have remembered you, but you’re not married to me either. You have no business asking me if we can be friends.”

“I thought you really cared,” Stan said quietly.

“I always tried to be professional,” she told him. “I always did my best to help everyone else to do their job as well as they could. But you can’t make that more than it was. If I was nice to you at work, remember that I was nice to everyone else too. At the end of the day, I forgot all of you on the drive home, and I didn’t remember you again until I got back to work the next day. That’s the only way I can survive, with every man and his brother thinking I owe them something more.”

“I never realized it was like that for you,” Stan admitted.

“Now you know,” she said. “Now, if you will excuse me, I have an appointment here.” With that, they went their separate ways.

Contentment

Several times this month I have tried to write about contentment, but I was never satisfied with what I wrote. This might be an example of irony. It might be evidence that I do not heed my own advice. It might affirm the proverb that says, “Those who cannot do, teach.”

The Bible describes contentment. “The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm” (Proverbs 19:23). Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13). “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (I Timothy 6:6-8). “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).

In these verses contentment seems to rest in satisfaction with what possessions one has in this world—enough food, enough clothing, enough money, but none of these things in excess. Lotteries thrive on the lack of contentment in our society. Advertisements would not work if most people were content. Lack of contentment seems to be a driving force in many of the decisions people make every day, and in the large lifetime decisions people sometimes struggle to make.

The opposite of contentment is coveting. God has forbidden coveting in his Ten Commandments. Coveting is not merely wanting something; coveting is seeing what another person has and desiring it for one’s own. If you are happy to see your neighbor with a new car, you are not coveting—even if you admire the car and wish you could have one like it. When you see your neighbor’s new car and grumble, complaining how unfair life is, then you are coveting. When you are angry at people who have good things you do not have, then you are coveting. Coveting is a sin because you cannot love your neighbor while you covet what belongs to your neighbor. Moreover, you do not love and trust God when you are angry and unhappy because of the things you do not have.

God tells his people not to covet their neighbors’ house. This includes anything that can be bought with money—not only the building next door, but also the car, the clothing, the concert ticket or season ticket, or the winning lottery ticket. Whenever you ask, “Why him and not me?” you are in danger of coveting. God also tells his people not to covet their neighbor’s husband or wife, not to covet their neighbor’s workers, and not even to covet their neighbor’s work animals. This includes anything that is tied to a person by loyalty—pets and friends as well. In junior high school, people are sometimes very open about coveting each other’s friends, to the point of crying because “Susie likes Jane more that she likes me.” As adults we are more subtle about the way we covet, but sometimes we are still unhappy and even angry because of the friendships and relationships other people have that we do not have.

Contentment does not mean that we cannot plan for improvements, work to earn money to buy the things we want, or hope for a better life. We are content, not only with what we have today, but also with what is available to us in the future. Contentment does not mean being satisfied with mediocre work. A content person has done his or her best at a task, and when the task is finished, the content person is able to move on to something else. Contentment does not require us to tolerate evil. When we see wickedness and evil, these things should make us angry. Accepting evil and not resisting it is not being content—accepting evil and not resisting it is being calloused and cold.

Contentment is easier to define in negative ways than in positive ways. Yet contentment is not an absence of desire or of anger. Contentment is a positive state. Contentment is “peace at the center.” Contentment is confidence that God is working all things for good. Contentment is trusting God, while also working to serve God by loving him and by helping our neighbors. Like peace and joy, contentment is a deeper quality than happiness or pleasure. Contentment does not disappear even when things are going wrong. If a Christian is struggling with credit card debt, if a Christian is struggling to pass a difficult class, or if a Christian is lonely and looking for friends, that Christian can still be content. The forces of evil hate to see God’s people having peace and joy and contentment. They fight to strip these qualities away from the Christian. Yet peace and joy and contentment are rooted in God’s gift of faith, which is the very reason that our enemies cannot take away our peace and joy and contentment.

I have seen an inspirational poster that says, “Living in the future is anxiety. Living in the past is depression. Living in the present is contentment.” In part, I disagree. Happy memories and nostalgia also involve the past—not all thoughts of the past are depression. Hope and eager expectation also involve the future—not all thoughts of the future are anxiety. The only time in which a Christian can live, though, is today. God has guaranteed our future. He has already taken care of all our past problems. Now Jesus teaches his people to pray for daily bread, for daily forgiveness, for the ability to forgive others each day, for daily guidance, and for daily protection. Because of the work of Christ, we do not have to pray about the past. Because of the promises of God, we do not have to pray about the future. Jesus teaches us to live one day at a time, praying that day for that day’s needs.

This, I think, is the secret of being content. It starts with knowing God, trusting God, and loving God. It continues by living one day at a time, neither frightened of what is past or worried about what is to come. Living one day at a time, though, we can still thank God for the good things of the past, and we can hope for (and plan for) good things to come in the future. Before writing about his contentment, Paul first gave advice telling how to be content. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

I know one more secret about contentment. It cannot be pursued successfully. What a Buddhist says of enlightenment, I say of Christian contentment: the harder you seek it, the harder it is to find. You only receive it when you are not looking for it or trying to get it. When I was a boy I used to chase butterflies, but I never captured any. Now that I am a man, I sometimes sit in the garden, and butterflies land on my knee. May contentment come to you, not through your striving, but rather when you are least expecting it. J.

 

Assorted thoughts about Christmas

I have always enjoyed this time of year. The build-up to Christmas and the celebration of Christmas are both meaningful and fun. Being the curmudgeon that I am, though, I can still find reasons to complain even about the Christmas holidays.

When my favorite radio station started playing wall-to-wall Christmas music on the first of November, I was not ready for Christmas music. I switched stations, and even now, with barely a week left before Christmas, I have not bothered to switch back.

For me, Christmas is a celebration with the Church and with my family. In those two places we can be very specific about what we are celebrating. We still have plenty of secular items—the Christmas tree, stockings with gifts, and so on—but we are able to center our celebration on the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. When I am at work, observing Christmas is more awkward. On the one hand, I’m glad that they give us paid time off to celebrate the Christmas holiday. On the other hand, when we are in the building, I would just as soon focus on my job. Holiday decorations and parties and sing-alongs do not appeal to me at work, in part because these events have to reach the lowest common denominator so that no one is offended. I don’t object to people decorating their own work space with reminders of Christmas, but if I were to set up a nativity scene, other people might object. So I don’t decorate at all. If I can slip out and miss a party or a sing-along, that’s fine with me. I will do enough celebrating at church and with my family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and through the twelve days of Christmas.

Part of my family celebration involves a new decoration appearing each day through the season of Advent. We have so many items to deck the halls and living room and dining room and outdoors that I can bring one decoration out of storage each day. Some decorations are big projects—the lights on the house, for example, or the tree. Others are just a small touch—a stained glass decoration hanging in a window, or Christmas towels in the bathrooms. When they were younger, the children tried to predict which decoration would appear each day. Sometimes they searched the house looking for that day’s decoration. My oldest even checked in from college, trying to keep up with the daily decorations.

I have stopped sending out Christmas cards. I have neither the time nor the money to spend on that custom. I still get fifteen or twenty Christmas cards a year. Like my parents and my grandparents before me, I like to tape the cards to ribbons and hang those ribbons on the wall of the living room. About twelve years ago, I set aside that year’s cards, meaning to check them later for notes, and they sat around all year. When December came again, I decided to post them with the new cards from that year. Each year the collection grew a little larger. Now I have nearly two hundred Christmas cards on the living room wall and down the hall. I toss duplicate cards or any that I don’t think are attractive. Even when the other Christmas decorations have been put back into storage, the cards will stay up until the start of February.

Like decorations, songs and movies and special food are all part of the Christmas experience. Many of them have no direct connection to the Incarnation of our Lord, but they have all become part of the scenery for this time of year. I understand why many people struggle with depression during this holiday season. I can be prone to depression at times like this as well. By taking it easy, by not having high expectations, and especially by keeping the focus where it belongs and not on what I’m doing, I am generally successful at escaping negative feelings about Christmas. May all those who struggle find ways to do the same. J.

 

Post number one hundred

According to WordPress this is my one hundredth Salvageable post. I have been enjoying, and will continue to enjoy, the people I am meeting in the blog community. A big thank you to all of you who take the time to read my Salvageable work.

This may be true for most of you, or maybe I am unique: I find that my favorite posts of the first 100 are some of the earliest posts. These are favorites because I had been thinking about them for months, if not years, before they finally got published here. That is especially true of A Day for Mary which I would like to submit to a Christian magazine or two for publication. Likewise, Why Does He Do It?  represents a long time of watching and wondering. Knowing this about my blog, I plan to visit some of your archives to read your earliest posts, so I will know what was on your minds the most when you started blogging.

A recent discussion on the always incisive and erudite InsanityBytes makes me want to revisit the post I wrote, My Best Friend’s Rotten Wife. One of the comments I made to InsanityBytes is that “organized religion” is an oxymoron like jumbo shrimp or highway safety.

This summer I was flattered to receive two nominations for this blog. The first was from the lovely Authentically Aurora, who nominated me for the Helping Hand Award back in July. That award pleased me because accepting it didn’t require much effort on my part. Thank you, Aurora, for your kind words last summer. Then in August the gentle and sensitive Ally nominated me for the Blogger Recognition award. This one does come with rules, and here they are:

“Post an image of the award.” Done. (See the bottom of the post.)

“Thank your nominator.” Thank you, Ally, for the nomination and for all the great writing you produce.

“Nominate fifteen blogs.” This I cannot do because most of my favorite blogs have already been nominated by someone else (namely, Ally).

“Write a brief description of your blog.” Salvageable is a place where I get to be a curmudgeon one day, complaining about my neighbors or about bad drivers, and then I get to be a fan the next day, celebrating the Beatles or the Chicago Cubs. At times I write about the Christian faith, and at times I write about anxiety and depression, and at times I just ramble.

“Write one or two pieces of advice for a new blogger.” Since I broke the fifteen nominations rule, I will stretch this rule and share what I told future writers in a program called Authors in the Schools. I think these three pieces of advice are as true for bloggers as for other kinds of writers. First, to be a good writer, read a lot. Your writing will improve as you see other good writing. Second, write a lot. Write something every day if you can, even if no one else ever sees most of it. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it generally makes better. Third, rewrite a lot. Only God can produce a flawless first draft. The rest of us need to return to work we have written and consider how it can be improved.

“Provide a link to the original BRA award.” Here it is.

Finally, what does the future hold for Salvageable? What will appear in the next 100 posts? I will continue to be both a curmudgeon and a fan. I will continue posting First Friday Fiction for at least a few more months. The Grammar Dalek will be back soon. And I may share parts of my next writing project, currently in the outline stage, which will be called Christ in Genesis.

Thank you all for reading and for your comments. J.

helping-hand                  bloggerrecognitionaward

The muse: a femme fatale

Last month I attended a public lecture given by a local painter. Toward the end of his talk, he began to speak of the muse. Since ancient Greece, artists and creative people spoke of the Muses as spirits who guided them in their work. This painter did not have kind words for his muse. As well as I can remember, this is what he said: “The muse cares about the art, not about the artist. She will use him to produce art until he drops dead from exhaustion, and she does not care. At any whim she can cast him off and abandon him without a second thought. The muse is not the artist’s friend, because the artist is the tool of the muse.”

I may be embellishing his words a bit, but I have captured the essence of what he said. Few creative people are in love with their muse. Writers do not write because it’s fun to write—writers are driven to write. Painters and sculptors and others involved in the visual arts feel the same way. Musicians perform music, not as a hobby but as a compulsion. I have known many musicians. I have noticed that their feelings about people who dabble in music vary between amusement and scorn. If music is just a hobby—if music is not the only reason to go on living—then that amateur performer is not considered a true musician.

Every art is populated by starving artists. Only a few in each field reach the heights of fame and wealth. Most take on another job to support themselves while their hearts remain dedicated to their art. One of my musician friends made contact with the drummer who performed with Santana at Woodstock. The man still drums in small clubs for a pittance. With his immense talent and his minutes of fame, today he is a classic image of the starving artist.

Creative people often seem to have emotional problems of one kind or another. From severe mental illness to deep depression, artists seem prone to live unhappy lives. The suicide of an Ernest Hemingway or a Robin Williams reminds the rest of the world of the pain many artists carry inside themselves day and night. Who is to blame? Is it the fault of the muse that artists suffer? Can only those afflicted by pain supply the rest of the world with entertainment and with awe?

Soren Kierkegaard compared poets to the victims in ancient Sicily who were roasted to death in a hollow bull a king commanded an artist to devise. The screams of pain generated from within the bull by the victim sounded like music passing through the contraption. Reportedly, the designer of the Sicilian bull was the first victim to be tested in its flames.

Aristotle said something to the effect of “there is no great genius without a touch of madness.” He may have been thinking of Socrates, who was often considered to be mad. Socrates claimed to be inspired by a semi-divine spirit (the actual Greek word is “demon”) and would sometimes stop and stare into space, even in the middle of a conversation. Other wise people have compared the link between genius and madness to the link between roses and thorns.

Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, felt that creativity comes from being an outsider. He said that the mentally ill, along with Jews and homosexuals and other outsiders, are forced to see the world in a different way because they were made outsiders. When they describe the world which they see, they are discovered to be creative.

All this seems to say that the muse is a cruel mistress, a femme fatale, who uses the artist for her own ends without regard for the artist’s happiness, comfort, or even survival. Perhaps in a perfect world art can be produced painlessly, but we do not live in a perfect world. The burden of the artist, the driving force of the muse, is part of the reality of existence in this world. In the movie A League of Their Own, the manager is talking about baseball when he says, “Of course it’s not easy! If it were easy, everyone would do it.” What is true of baseball is true of art as well. J.