For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.
Isaiah 43:19 NLT
Friends, this week has been a constant mess, from breaking an entire carton of eggs to fighting with the tiny human about school work and getting chili oil in my eyes. Normally at this point in a week like this, I’d be done – so over it that I would just cruise through with the minimum effort needed to get to the weekend so at least the schoolwork arguments would end for a few days.
I only cried when I got chili oil in my eyes. I didn’t even lose my crap when the dog took a nap in actual crap and tried to come inside with crap all over her shoulder. And all those eggs I broke Monday? We had delightful quiches for breakfast this morning. (Yes, I just said “delightful” about quiche, and I feel just as weird about it as you do now.) I feel okay in spite of all the mess, and that’s a new thing for me.
I finally feel like there is a very real pathway through the desert for me, and there is a river flowing through the dry wasteland that is depression brain (besides the chili oil tears from my eyes). So here are the three things you should know this Thursday:
1. There is always hope.
I know from my own experience that it doesn’t always feel like it. I haven’t ever really been suicidal, but I’d be lying if I said I’ve never thought the world would be better off without me. But that was a lie from the pit of Hell that is never something God would say to you or want you to say to yourself. We are each specially designed by God and valuable as his work of art and destined to fulfill his purpose in our lives. Never stop believing that.
2. I had to make changes for the better in every aspect of my life and be consistent with those daily actions to see this giant improvement.
I started with a few things and built on it, but God isn’t just interested in our spiritual health. He wants us to be healthy and strong in our bodies, our minds, our relationships, our work, and our faith. You may have to address the biggest fire first, but it takes a whole being approach to reap the biggest change rewards.
3. At some point, I will relapse and have depression symptoms again.
I’ve dealt with it long enough to recognize that I will not be one of those people who has an episode or two and then gets over it. I will need to treat depression like a chronic disease for the rest of my life. It sounds a tiny bit depressing just saying that like a fact, but it is a fact, and acknowledging the fact means I can manage it like any other chronic illness can be managed. I can expect good times, and I can expect relapses. It’s just a fact of life, so when it happens I can remember that it won’t last forever and it’s just part of the illness (not a mental or moral defect).
So, when life cracks all your eggs, make a delightful quiche. And when life cross contaminates your paper towel with chili oil that you then wipe your eyes with, may your tears form rivers in the dry wastelands and may your milk be cold and close at hand.
I try to show an art or writing related WIP when I share these, but this week, my biggest WIP is me. I try to be transparent about my mental health struggles so that other people may feel safer to share their own problems or at least know they aren’t alone, so this week the WIP is me.
Right now, after months of social distancing, it’s hard not to feel alone. The constant changes in our work and school environments, the stress of dealing with the threat of a mysterious illness, the ever growing cacophony of political posts and angry people on social media… It’s all taking a toll on me, and I know I’m not the only one. The tragic loss of someone I’ve counted as a friend several weeks ago reminded me that I need to take my mental health seriously as the potential life-threatening disease depression can be.
This summer I already made myself a list of things I knew my counselor would tell me to do, and I’ve been trying to do them daily. Last week, I added a diet element to it that’s shown a lot of potential in the few limited clinical trials that have been done. This week, I sat down and wrote out care plans for daily preventive care, acute symptom care (when I start feeling mental and physical symptoms of stress, depression, or anxiety), and rescue care (when it’s all a bit too much, and I need immediate relief).
After several months of intentionally doing my “preventive protocol,” I can definitely say it’s helping me stay on more equal mental footing. The addition of the diet angle and the mental safety net of having plans written out with behavioral triggers to put them into action has been a huge and quick improvement, enough so that I’m committing to sticking with the diet plan for the foreseeable future.
Sometimes, the WIP is me.
And that’s a good thing. I am a valuable creation of God, and I am worthy of taking care of myself. Depression brain wants to tell us that we have no value, no worth, nothing to offer. That’s just not true.
You are valuable, you are loved, and you are worthy of being your own WIP, too. What do you need to start doing today to grow and feel better?
Today will not go as perfectly planned. In fact, it’s already off the rails. Do your best. Don’t quit. Good is good enough.
I am horrible with schedules. Being on time is ridiculously hard for me (and harder for the rest of my family, so you can imagine getting out the door with our crew is LOADS of fun), which everyone who knows me well has experienced. I wish I could be one of those people who could shrug it off, but I also feel it deeply like a moral failure. (It’s also SUPER fun to be a perfectionist but not also a Type A organized person…)
When I’m being an organized person and using my daily planner, I rough out the time allotment for each task in half hour increments, and I shoot for that as I work through the day. BUT, I have yet to ever complete a perfectly planned day perfectly. It never happens. It probably never will happen. BUT, it doesn’t stop me from trying.
I know the definition of insanity is to try the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome, so I tweak my approach once in a while. I’m not completely crazy – just a little nuts most of the time…
No matter how hard I try, something is going to derail my perfect planner day.
I’m generally resilient enough to adapt and still get the big things done (see last week’s post about prioritizing tasks), but one of the worst perfectionist personality traits is the desire to just chuck it all if it can’t be done perfectly. I have those days once in a while, and I have to make myself finish the day. It’s usually not pretty. I probably act more childish than my child about it.
Most of the time, a quick gut check is enough to remind me what’s important, and I just roll with it. Wherever you go, there you are. So if the derailed perfect plan train takes me hallway around the world, that’s fine: I’ll see new sights. I have been described more than once as “unflappable.”
Some days, I am flappable. I need to be reminded that not quitting may be the best I can do, and that’s okay. I just need to do the best I can in that moment, even if it’s not the best I could have done in other circumstances. I keep trying to work my way to being perfect, but I can’t be. The truth is, without grace, my whole life is a runaway train, and there’s not a thing I can do about it.
That’s a tough pill for a perfectionist to swallow, but it’s the grace that Jesus taught over and over.
“But the Lord said to her, ‘My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.’” Luke 10:41-42
“Then Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.’” Matthew 11:28-30
I’m not saying we shouldn’t work hard or pay attention to the details – God wants us to offer our best when we work – but I am saying sometimes we get wrapped up in the wrong details. I can get honed in on a particular set of circumstances and miss the big picture.
In the next few weeks leading up to school start dates (or not starting, or partial weeks, or whatever the plan is today), we’re all going to need grace to make it work. Some of us may need a lot of help to make it work. My teacher and school administrator friends are going to need so, so, so much prayer from us and grace from their classroom parents just to stay sane. We’re all going to need resiliency and (say it with me this time) grace to make it through the semester when the only constant is change.
I’ll be telling myself over and over to step back and find the one thing worth being concerned about and going hard after that. Here’s a secret: it’s always going to be loving God and loving people. That’s always the big picture, and it never changes. Let’s hang on to that while our perfect schedule trains ride off the rails into new territory. I bet the scenery will be worth it.
#1. I haven’t been very active here on the blog for several months, but I was getting the final editing and design touches completed on “A Psalmist’s Guide to Grief.” So I may not have been very productive at writing much else, but I’m ALL DONE WITH THE BOOOOOOOOOOOK!!!!!
#2. I think the most constant childhood dream job I ever had, whether I admitted it to anyone or not, was that I wanted to be an author. I feel like I’ve been able to call myself a writer for quite some time because I write a lot even though most of what I write will never see the light of day. But the title of “author” felt reserved for special people who actually publish books. Well, today is a special day for me because the print edition is now live on Amazon. (A few days early!)
I am officially an author, which is such an incredible feeling, though I’m arguably no more or less special than I was before. (Some of you who know me well can attest to the fact that I often act like a special kind of goober, and that is unchanged – now I’m just a goober author.) As an official author, I have an official author page now on Amazon, too, which you are welcome to check out here. “A Psalmist’s Guide to Grief” should be linked on that page, or you can click through the title, too. Right now it’s only on Amazon’s platform, but I will be looking further out now that the heavy lifting is done.
#3. I have one giant favor to ask. If you do read the book, I would be extremely grateful if you would leave a review. It will help the book’s rank in searches. To be completely transparent, it would hopefully help sales, but the bigger picture is it would widen the field of people who might actually see it on Amazon (and eventually beyond) who might need to hear the same things I needed to hear from God. I honestly don’t care much about the sales, but I do hope to help as many people as possible walk through grief with better coping tools than I had.
There’s still a lot of work to do to keep promoting and finding good local places to sell and all those things that go along with actually selling a book once it’s written, but today is a day to CELEBRATE! Since real parties are not exactly happening right now, let’s party virtually – share your favorite happy dance/party/anything fun GIF in the comments.
Thank you, friends, for all your support to get to this point! These extra exclamation points are for you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Salaam Green, maybe more than anyone I know, recognizes that we are all works in progress, and she uses her gifts to help others heal and grow. I first found Salaam’s writing work in a Facebook group for writers, the See Jane Write Network. I instantly fell in love with her storytelling and the images her words spun up in my head.
As a writer who loves to encourage people to be creative and use that creativity to grow, I dearly love Salaam’s work of using journaling to heal. She founded the Literary Healing Arts Foundation as a way to help people write their healing into reality. Please check out her web site for the Literary Healing Arts Foundation. You’ll find her blog and a page with prompts as well as a way to submit writing for healing feedback.
I stumbled upon a celebrity social media post about doing the #AmplifyMelanatedVoicesChallenge this week. (I saw it on Glennon Doyle’s Facebook page, and it was created by @blackandembodied and @jessicawilson.msrd) The idea is that you mute your own voice and amplify the voices of black women. I can think of no better way to process what’s happening in the nation right now. Writers write to understand the world, and I will journal like crazy, but what I should share publicly is something that could actually make a difference rather than add more words to the cacophony of the moment.
I think the best place for me to start is to amplify the women in my life who have helped me, who nurture me with their talents or acceptance or friendship on a daily basis. Monday is usually when I write about a mental health mindset tool, so today is all about a friend whose life work is the mental health of others.
Danna Perdue-Melton is one of the kindest, funniest, and smartest women I know. I love every minute we get to spend together. She’s also a licensed counselor who works with children, adolescents, and adults with issues related to anxiety, depression, toxic stress, trauma and PTSD.
You can find information about Danna’s counseling services here:
You can also follow her on Instagram @dannamp or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/danna.perduemelton) for daily encouragement. I love her posts, and she encourages me every day through them. Her friendship is a gift I treasure, and her counseling work and encouragement is a treasure for everyone.
See the mountain once a day; then focus on the trail in front of you.
I don’t know about you, but I tend to overwhelm myself when I get into a big project. I make two equal, yet differing mistakes. First, I think too hard about the end result and plotting the perfect course that I often fail to take the first steps needed to make it to the top of the mountain. Then, once I finally get to work, I plot a timeline/schedule for my perfect course, but it’s a breakneck pace that’s only possible if I can work through the schedule perfectly every day without interruptions. Brilliant, right?
Many moons ago I suckered my best friend into training for a triathlon with me. We worked really hard, and we planned a trail run/walk as a fun training day. We were very smart and packed a fabulous picnic lunch, which we put in a cooler in one of our cars at the top of the mountain trail we were going to tackle. We drove in the other car down to the trailhead to begin. We had even studied the trail maps for the park and picked the one that was closest to our distance goal. Brilliant, right?
The trail was beautiful and shady enough that we didn’t feel like dying in the Alabama heat and humidity, and we were making great time, maybe even running ahead of schedule based on our goal pace. And then we came to the end of the marked trail we had planned to follow. There was no parking lot with our parked lunch cooler car. Instead, there was more mountain to hike and a sign pointing to another trail that would take us to the lunch cooler car. And we had no idea how long the new trail would be because we thought we had already accounted for that distance. Brilliant, right?
We were somewhere between trailheads with no plan because our perfect lunch plan had just been obliterated by this sign and the new colored trail marks it told us to follow. We had to decide if it was better to keep going up, or turn around and go back to where we started. We took a look up the mountain, and we decided to go for it. If we had focused on the fact that the map was weirdly drawn and had delayed our lunch by at least another two miles uphill, that mountain would have taken forever to hike because our attitude would have made things miserable. We focused on the trail markers and where we were headed, and those extra miles weren’t so bad.
Long story, short: It’s easy to get discouraged when you see how much mountain you still have to climb to get to the top, no matter how brilliant your plan was to begin with. By concentrating on the next step that’s directly in front of you, you’ll be able to feel less pressure from the enormity of the overall goal and focus on the task at hand. You still need to see the big picture, but it doesn’t need to hang over you like an oppressive shadow. Let it be motivation to keep moving and a reminder of why you’re taking this particular trail. Don’t let it scare you into never leaving the parking lot.
Additional moral to the story: sometimes you have to change plans mid-trail, or maybe you have to find the next trail when the one you just finished didn’t get you all the way to the endpoint you wanted. That’s not failure. That’s being resilient and adapting to the situation on the ground. That’s a solid marker of mental health, and it’s a good thing.
What mountain are you planning to climb? What does the trail look like that puts you on a path to accomplishing that goal? How can you narrow your focus to just that trail in front of you?
I am a naturally empathetic person. It’s one of my INFJ personality type superpowers. Empathy makes me a great listener, a good friend, a compassionate leader, a solid writer, a generous giver…
But it’s also my kryptonite. I internalize the mood of the space I’m in, the people I’m around, the news I hear and read. All of it goes straight to my heart. When I’m not my healthiest spiritually and/or mentally, I have to create buffers between my soul and the ”real world,” or I can’t watch the news without crying over how broken the world is – how the pandemic is affecting the entire world – how heavy the losses are for families affected by the crime and poverty being reported – how divisive and angry our politics are – how even the good news stories are often colored with shades of loss or hardship, even if it’s a story about a loss restored.
It’s all so oppressive that joy, even the deep and abiding joy of living in Christ, is hard to muster. I tend to retreat, to build so many buffers that I can hide in comfort food and craft projects. Sometimes I volunteer too much as a way to compensate and keep my brain too busy with stuff to do to be able to focus on how I feel. It’s a really dumb way to handle all the feels, but it typically happens on such a subconscious level that I don’t realize it until I’ve taken on too much work to handle and there are abandoned crochet projects all over the house (and the house is a wreck).
As I grow, I get better at spotting the cycle. I’m certainly better at recognizing the moments when I’m feeling all the feelings, and even knowing when they’re not mine.
But the letting go part, that’s not my strong suit.
I’m great at planning my way out of mess and thinking I can generate just the right to-do list that will fix all my perceived problems. Overweight and out of shape? Yes, but if I follow this diet plan and this exercise regimen EXACTLY, then I’ll be at my goal weight and peak physical conditioning in less than a year. Behind on my quest to be a “real author?” Absolutely, but if I write this many minutes per day on each writing project, and I send out this many book proposals in the next two weeks, THEN I’ll be on my way.
It’s all malarkey. Not that I shouldn’t make plans and set goals, but I am still learning the lesson that I’m setting insane goal paces as a way to avoid some of my feelings. The irony, of course, is that setting unattainable goal deadlines sets me up to disappoint myself and kick off a whole new wave of uncomfortable disappointed feelings.
I’ve been aiming instead to feel the feeling for a bit, and then I have to move on. Stress is definitely the hardest for me to let go of, and it’s probably the most indicative of where my faith is in any given moment. It’s also been the most common feeling of the last few weeks.
I’m not a super strict schedule person, because even when I try to be strict, something blows up and pushes all my meticulous plans aside. To go from a loose schedule to something new entirely with a child home from school who’s definitely used to a routine has turned my brain onto permanent “AAAAGGGHHHH” mode. It’s not that I have a lot more to do – it’s the same amount of work, although I’m doing more consistent housekeeping and actually clearing out some clutter – but there’s a lot more emotional and mental and spiritual work to do to keep my empathy superpower from killing me. The unknown and nebulous menace of dealing with a pandemic is also adding a layer of stress that’s harder to identify.
I know that I feel stress less acutely when I am consistently spending time praying and studying the Bible. I use a prayer app to keep track of requests, and it also has a meditation and preparation prompt that uses Bible verses and devotional writings to direct your time before you begin praying through requests. Some days, that’s as far as I can get (and very honestly, some days I don’t make it to an intentional time of prayer, and it’s just scattered bits when I remember something or start to lose my mind). On my best days, I also spend time reading the Bible and taking notes. You don’t have to take notes to study the Bible, but it’s very much how my brain processes information, so I hand write notes when I’m really studying. It’s also good to just read without the expectation that I need to do anything deeper.
I know that my diet and water intake will also have a huge effect on how I handle stress, though that knowledge doesn’t always translate into the wisdom of action. Same story with exercise. That’s on my list to work on this week.
You may wonder why I started with prayer and Bible study as the best stress buster in my toolbox and spent so much space talking about it. There are two reasons I think it’s the most effective tool. First, focusing on God in a way that seeks to learn more about his character and channels my prayers towards others shifts my focus entirely away from myself and towards an infinitely larger subject. My worries fade in comparison, and I lose the weight of my stress in that time of meditation. Second, meditation is a highly recommended cognitive behavioral therapy tool because it teaches us to calm our thoughts and shift our perspectives and thought patterns. Prayer and Bible study is my mode of meditation.
Managing stress and learning how to let go if it is one huge feeling we can practice the “feel the feelings and then let them go” mantra on that we’re all experiencing to some degree right now. Sometimes just managing stress makes managing other emotions much easier. When that’s not enough, how do we let go of other feelings that want to linger, like anger and sadness? I don’t have a perfect answer, but I have model.
Feel the feeling. Acknowledge that it’s there and know that whatever the feeling is, it’s okay to experience it and that you are not defined by your emotions. If you’re in a safe and appropriate setting, vent it. Cry or shake your fist with rage or write down what you’re feeling. If you’re not in a space that’s conducive to expressing the feeling, note it, and let yourself come back to it when you can. Realize that expressing emotion doesn’t mean you have a free pass to act any way you want without consequence, so think before you act. If an emotion is so strong that you’re not going to behave well, give yourself some time and space.
Once you acknowledge the feeling, examine it. What exactly was the emotion? What triggered it? How did you react? What foundational beliefs affected your reaction? Was your reaction appropriate to the situation? What information would change the intensity level of the emotion you experienced? How could you react differently if you have the same experience again?
Most of the time, taking a moment to examine the feeling lets us take a step back and look more impartially at the situation, and we find that our emotional reaction is less intense than it was in the heat of the moment. Downgrading the emotional intensity is a big step in letting go.
If you’ve examined the emotion, and nothing seems to take away the edge, decide if it’s a situation you can change or not. If you can, make some changes. If you can’t change the situation, you need to change your thought pattern. Whenever the lingering negative feeling pops up, actively counter it with a positive thought or action. For example, with depression, I tend to get cranky when I’m not in healthy condition. When I realize the anger is creeping up, I try to actively avoid confrontations that I know will end ugly, and I remind myself to breathe slowly and remember that whatever it is, it will be okay. Find something to redirect in a positive way the negative thought/emotion pattern that works for you. It takes a lot of practice, and it feels a little silly when you first start, but it’s a game changer.
Even with this model and a ton of head knowledge about what I need to put into action to let go of things and feel better, sometimes I suck great wind. But good mental health is a marathon, not a sprint. As long as you’re moving forward, or at least not wallowing too long when you fall down, you’re building the endurance you need to be healthy.
If you have children or work with them, you’ve probably said, “Use your words, not your hands.” But today, we are throwing caution to the wind and assuming you’re mature enough to use your hands AND your words.
Today, my home state decided the wisest course of action to slow the pandemic spread is to cancel in-person classes at school for the rest of the semester. My tiny human was a little nuts the first week that school was paused for three weeks. Now that we know we’ll continue the semester with assignments from home, she was a lot nuts trying to go to bed tonight.
To be honest, so was I. Everything in our schedule is upside down. I’m a naturally empathetic person, and I can’t even peek at social media right now where everyone’s dogs and cats and family updates usually perk me up – right now it’s full of people experiencing the same loss I’m experiencing, and I can feel too deeply the lost senior year antics, the teachers missing their students and working like crazy to figure out how to make the next two months happen virtually, the students who miss their teachers and classrooms and friends and routines, all the people out of work, and all the people working through incredibly stressful conditions at essential jobs. It’s a lot, and it’s hard for everyone right now, no matter what your situation.
If you have been feeling a little too much of the worry of the moment (or had a mild panic attack like I did tonight), here are three things you need to know right now:
It’s okay to feel the feelings. It’s okay to mourn for the loss of your daily routine and to freak out a little bit at all the things that are different right now, including the inexplicable hoarding of toilet paper and ground beef.
Once you feel the feelings, tell them the truth. Let the crazy thoughts and emotions and anxiety parade by, but don’t get out there and march with them. Wave as they pass by. And as they march down the parade route, imagine yourself as the cheesy news anchor announcing the float, telling you bizarre facts like how many coffee beans were used in the construction of the float, and then sending it off with a great one-liner like, “But I know no matter how many coffee beans they used to make that float, it’s still not running the show.” That’s a silly example, but a real thought exercise might sound like this in your head: “Here comes stress. Stress likes to show off with flashy things like anger and overstimulation, but stress is going to keep walking right on by. I’m going to wave goodbye to stress because it needs to finish the parade route, and I can control my actions.” You aren’t your feelings. You aren’t your thoughts, though that’s a tempting line of thought, given Descartes’s catchy, “I think, therefore I am,” philosophy. You are a created child of God, which leads to…
Philippians 4:6-7: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”
Slow down, breathe for a moment, and get some perspective. I don’t care what this pandemic or anything else going on in your life holds for you, God will hold you together through it. These verses are a blueprint for how to survive.
So I just listed three things that obviously had nothing to do with the introduction. That was a bonus list. The three things I started out to write for today is a set of mental health exercises to use if you’re feeling the stress a little too much right now, and they all use your hand as a cue.
First, trace your hand on a piece of paper. I’ll wait. No, I’m not kidding. Any paper will do. I only had fluorescent green handy (see what I did there…), so that’s what I’m using (as well as subpar phone photography).
Our first exercise is just breathing. Breathe in through your nose while you count to five, hold it for a count of five, and breathe out through your mouth while you count to five. Use the hand print as a visual to focus your thoughts onto just your breathing. If you want more meditative visualization, remember that we are God-breathed creations, the Bible is described as God-breathed, and every breath is life. We are breathing in God’s provision, savoring it for a moment, and then letting go of everything that’s past. Try this for a few breaths, or a few minutes, until you feel your heart rate settle and the stray thoughts that run in like saboteurs slow down their attacks.
Now, using your hand as a counting reference, list five things that you’re thankful for right now. If you like the physicality of ticking them off with your fingers, go for it. Whenever you feel like anxiety is trying to take over, list five things you’re grateful for or five things that bring you joy. It’s not going to change the circumstances, but it’s going to change your perspective of the circumstances by reminding you of good things in your life.
And the third exercise is one of my favorites (and the reason you need an actual tracing of your hand on paper). In the space outside your hand, write down all the things you can’t control that are taking up space in your thoughts. In the space inside your hand, write down things you can control. What’s the difference in the things in your grasp and the things you can’t hold on to? If you can’t control the things outside your hand, how much mental energy should you devote to them?
We tend to think of worry as something that just happens to us because our circumstances are big and scary. But… Worry is a choice. While we can’t control every thought that pops into our heads, we can control how much we let them run around unchecked. The second we let all the things we can’t control run the narrative in our thought patterns, worry is running the show. We used the parade imagery in the first list, and even though it was a parade of negative thinking, there was order and we were telling the floats what to do, right? Now imagine for a second what that parade would look like without a chaos coordinator. Think Barney ’97. Total disaster.
Let’s use Philippians 4:6-7 as our thought process model. Don’t worry; let the thoughts pass by without letting them run the show. Pray about everything; that’s certainly something you can control, so if it’s not already in your handprint, maybe you should add it. Tell God what you need; he already knows, but you still need to express it as a need for him. Thank God for what you have. Feel that anxiety turn towards peace. That’s what putting your life in God’s hands will do.
Alright, I now have two lists of three things, and since I have moderate perfectionist tendencies, I feel the need to end on another list of three so we have three three things because two three things will not do. So… here are three things that bring me extra stress relief:
Bee Badminton. Tis the season for carpenter bees. I hate them making swiss cheese out of my porch, so I whack them with badminton rackets. Bonus fun – now the dogs like to help by catching the ones I hit and eating them. It’s now a team sport.
Potato Pelting. One of my dogs has a barking problem. At night I can stop her by shining a flashlight on her, but, alas, my superpower beam is useless in the day. I usually stash some tennis balls in the kitchen that I can chunk at her to redirect her attention, but, alas, all the balls are in the yard. Today I discovered some tiny potatoes that hid in a dark corner of the kitchen until I forgot about them. They’ve all sprouted and are useless for eating, but they’re the perfect size to chunk at the loudmouth dog – heavy enough to be able to throw accurately for decent distance but light enough not to injure the dog. And I’m composting (badly, I admit, but it’s composting nonetheless, and you won’t convince me otherwise).
Writing. I was tempted to chuck it all, even the potatoes, tonight and distract myself with television and solitaire until I got sleepy. I feel much better now for having done some mental work to settle down and praying for a while. Now that I’ve dumped my brain out on a page, I feel like I’m me again.
One final hand photo to prove I may write like I have my crap together, but I can’t even trace my hand without getting Sharpie ink all over myself. This is one of at least five similar ink spots. I can barely be trusted with scissors, so I promise if I can make it through life, you can, too.
Sometimes the hits keep coming. You’ve bobbed and weaved, tucked and rolled, maybe even landed a few punches of your own… But the body blows keep coming. What then? How do you stay on your feet? Live to fight another day, as it were.
There’s good news and bad news, and that is: there is no magic formula. There is no mystic ritual or self-help mumbo jumbo. There’s just this: do the next thing; pray; breathe; rest where you can; work through what’s in front of you. It feels like great problems or great stressors should have fancier solutions than that, but I promise you there’s no elaborate plan you’re missing that will fix your issues.
The great news about there being no magic formula is that working through hard things is within your reach. You can do this. It’s not impossible, and you have a very big God on your side who wants you to not only survive, but also thrive.
The hard part is that without a magic formula, there’s no way to avoid the hard work. Sometimes it’s simple work – don’t eat all the chocolate in the house at one time no matter how you feel, maybe even exercise more than once a month – but that doesn’t make it easy. And you know what? It’s okay for simple work to be hard. It happens to everyone. I don’t know a single (honest) person who hasn’t struggled with something that felt easy to someone else. For example, my sister is an excellent housekeeper. I, on the other hand, will willfully ignore dirty dishes for days, and clutter is my middle name. I fight to complete the simple work of not becoming the next subject of the “Hoarders” series.
So how do we keep our heads down and fight through the never-ending hit parade?
Let’s take a look at the best source material I know and gain some biblical perspective.
In the book of Micah, God is speaking to his people through the prophet Micah to tell them that God was angry and sad at their disobedience and their corrupt leadership. This particular verse is my favorite verse in the entire Bible because it sums up how we’re supposed to live as Christ followers in a single verse:
“O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Micah 6:8 NLT
It’s simple work: do what’s right (do the next thing), love mercy (cut your people some slack), walk humbly with God (spend daily time with God and keep studying the Bible). Sometimes it’s even easy work, but in my almost forty years of following Jesus, I have yet to arrive at the point where I get this right all the time. But I’ll never stop trying, no matter how many times I fail.
Hebrews 12:1-2 gives us another perspective:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.”
Hebrews 12:1-2 NLT
Hebrews 11 is often called the “Hall of Faith” because it lists heroes of the faith that lived before Paul, the guy who wrote this letter to the Hebrews. Those faith superheroes are the huge crowd of witnesses Paul is talking about in Hebrews 12:1. He’s telling us that we can look at those people, who were far from perfect, and we can see their example of faith as encouragement to continue in our faith. We have a race to run that God set out for each of us (so your race will look nothing like my race), and we have to learn how to run efficiently. We need to examine our lives honestly, and gracefully, and decide what dead weight is holding us back. We need to develop our endurance. And Paul gives us a method to use to gain endurance: keep your eyes on Jesus.
It’s simple work: run with endurance towards God’s finish line; keep looking forward at Jesus. It’s not easy work. Paul doesn’t pull any punches about that either – he plainly told the Hebrews that Jesus endured a horrible death on the cross because he could see the joy of the end result. I’m not there yet. I can’t even stick to the don’t eat all the chocolate plan for more than a few days. I’m certainly not at the point of discipline even to death.
So now that I’ve crushed that pep talk, let’s look at one more simple instruction designed to help us through tough work:
“Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.”
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NLT
More simple work: always be joyful; never stop praying; always be thankful. Wherever you find yourself today, no matter what body blows you’ve been taking or for how long, I promise you have something to be thankful for. You may have to step back and take a big picture view, but if you look, you will find something for which you can be grateful and that brings you joy. Did you know that gratitude journaling is one of the top “homework” activities therapists recommend for people being treated for depression? It helps us gain perspective, and that prescription has been floating around for a few millennia now.
It’s also huge to note that along with joy and gratitude, we should never stop praying. We humans were made for social connection, and God wants us to be connected to him even more than we’re connected to our social networks. In this moment of social distancing, we never have to hold God at the recommended 6’ distance. He wants us to always be in communication with him, and when I look at what truly soothes my anxious heart, it’s always time in prayer and reading the Bible. Everything else I try (chocolate, I’m looking at you) is just an empty filler that doesn’t reach the root of my unease.
Those are all my best sources for how to survive and also thrive despite the craziness around you. But maybe you’re not convinced that there is no magic formula, no elaborate ritual to make everything right. Read 2 Kings 5.
Elisha was a great prophet for Israel, and he had a reputation for performing miracles. In this story, Naaman, who was a very important person as the commander of the Aramean army, also had leprosy. His king sent him to visit Elisha to be healed, and the king sent huge amounts of money as a gift to the king of Israel, ostensibly to gain access to Elisha, but probably meant to impress upon him how great the King of Aram was and how great Naaman was by extension. They were very important people, and very important people expect very important treatment.
Elisha heard of Naaman’s approach, and he merely sent a message to go wash seven times in the Jordan River, and then he would be healed. How do you think Naaman handled that message? How would you have handled it? Naaman was furious. He expected a personal greeting – he was a very important person, after all. He expected some herculean task, but instead all he got was a messenger telling him to go wash in a river that was inferior to all his very important rivers back home.
Naaman pitched a fit.
But Naaman’s officers talked some sense into him. They asked, “If the prophet had told you to do something very difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?” Oh, how I love Naaman and his raw human reactions. He said and did everything we say and do when God gives us simple work in response to what we view as the biggest problem/pain/issue that has ever been. We argue that simple work will not possibly be adequate to address our situation, and we pitch a fit.
I bet you pictured Naaman and his king in all of their very important person glory, and I bet you didn’t see yourself in their pride until just now. I never see my own pride right away. I pitch fits.
After I pitch my fit, I try to follow the rest of Naaman’s example. Naaman listened to his officers and gained perspective. He went and washed in the Jordan River as Elisha instructed, and he was healed. Naaman continued his humble streak and went back to Elisha to tell him that Elisha’s God was the only true God in all the land and he would never worship another God.
Naaman went from a very important person attitude to a Micah 6:8 mindset in that experience. God sets us on paths that are hard, and he expects us to follow him, to see the joy waiting for us on the other side and run with endurance towards it. Endurance isn’t always fast or pretty, but it’s consistency developed over time through experiences that test our faith and our willingness to do the simple work of following God.
What simple work are you avoiding? What is the next step you need to take in your race of endurance?