Sunday, August 31, 2008

In defense of optimism

I was just reading this month's issue of Psychology Today and came across a quote in an article about style that had me running to my journal to riff on it. It was

"Style is optimism made visible. It presumes that you are a person of interest, the world is a place of interest, and life is worth making the effort for."

Psychology Today is published in NYC and sometimes is nauseatingly slick... it could also be called Psychology Lite, but I still enjoy the articles and learn some interesting stuff from it. My Guilty White American Conscience had already been revulsed by the premise of the article as shown by the pictures of stylish New Yorkers gracing the pages --"style is for people who can afford it", I thought (thinking, of course, not only of child laborers in India, but of my own rummaging through bags of outdated hand-me-downs in middle school and meeting the criticism and laughter of other kids at my selections)-- but this quote struck me.

It's not "style" that's important so much, but visible optimism IS important. It's taken me years, but I think I have learned this. You have to get there somehow. You HAVE to believe that the world is interesting, that there is wonder and beauty in it, that your life is worth making an effort. That optimism has to come from inside of you, or rather has to come from your will plus the work of the Holy Spirit in you. It can't be based on external circumstances, because those change all the time and yes sometimes life does suck. I think you have to get to a point where you can grieve over what's wrong in your life, wrong in the world, without allowing it to drive you to despair.

I'm trying to read all the Wendell Berry books I checked out from Central Library in May before they send cops to my house to confiscate them from me. I've been reading The Way of Ignorance this week and I started Life is a Miracle last night. The first essay in Miracle is called "Ignorance" (evidently he has quite a bit to say on the subject), and deals largely with the topic of the Earl of Gloucester's suicide attempt in King Lear. That sounds yawnilicious, but his main point centers on Edgar, the Earl's son, and his efforts to prevent his father from committing suicide, summed up in his statement "Thy life's a miracle. Speak yet again." Berry says

"Edgar's task is to save his father from despair, and he succeeds, for Gloucester dies at last 'twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief...' (v,iii,199). He dies, that is, within the proper bounds of the human estate."

Berry's point is that joy and grief are the proper boundaries of human emotion, and that despair is way out over the edge of those boundaries, a suicidal outlier on the emotional scale. Despair assumes that I have control, and that I have failed. As Kierkegaard says in The Sickness Unto Death, despair is the one sickness that is beyond cure. It negates all possibility of redemption, and in the strange, mysterious dance between our will and God's, it denies God entry into our lives to do His healing work. Jesus could not heal in a town --His hometown-- where they did not believe He could heal, and God will not heal us if we believe we are beyond hope... in other words, if we believe we are more powerful than He is. He'll allow us to persist in our illusion as long as we want.

I stayed up until well after 1 am on Thursday night to watch the live webcast of Radiohead's last concert of their U.S. tour. in Santa Barbara, CA. Anyone who knows me knows that I love me some Radiohead, and I was uber-excited about this. It was a good concert, musically speaking, but the lifelessness of the band members really hit me... particularly Thom Yorke, on whom I've had a rather large-sized crush for a rather long time. At one point, he actually said, "this song's for everyone whose had surgery lately. You're going to die. Sorry." Stupid, not funny, and mean. Now, I think he was reallllllly tired. I think they all were... but I was hit again by the mismatch between the transcendent beauty of Radiohead's music and the futility of their world view, which is openly, publicly Godless. Their music seethes with emotion, passion, and yes sometimes with something quite like despair, but it's very alive... yet somehow, they aren't. and the longer they do music the worse that seems to get, I think.

Contrast that with this morning's musical selection at Chez Moff, John Michael Talbot's The Lover and the Beloved. This is a collection of poems, mostly written by St. John of the Cross, about passionate longing for and passionate union with God. JMT sings these in his warm, comforting tenor accompanied only by himself on acoustic guitar. A friend of mine recently mentioned how he thought praise music sounded like people wanting to make love to God... and I thought, he would FREAK if he heard The Lover and the Beloved. It's a collection of romantic love songs to God and to Jesus and makes most praise music sound like Barney: "I love you, you love me...". I love these songs, though. They are passionate and beautiful and filled with longing for union with God and with Christ. The album came out in 1989, and I acquired it a couple of years after that... which means I was a Christian teenager... which means I was trying not to think about sex all the time and suffering great pangs of conscience at my failures in this regard. Lover and the Beloved was intriguing to me and raised an interesting question: is directing one's romantic passions towards God healthy? I concluded yes, at least for a while... but that's another blog post.

Like any love songs, the poetry of Lover has plenty of frustration, plenty of longing and seeking for God and not finding what is sought... but it doesn't end there. There is a basic expectation that the pursuit is worthwhile, that the object of pursuit is obtainable, and that someday the lover will have their beloved. It's such a marked contrast to Radiohead's lyrics, where the object of love is a torturer, a manipulator, and while obtainable, always a little beyond true reach.

Ok, Moff, what's your point? My point is that faith requires optimism. You can't believe and not believe at the same time. If you are a fundamentally cynical person, or if you value a certain world-weariness and bitterness --if you think that's "cool" or admirable-- then your faith will necessarily struggle and struggle hard. I think I've wrestled with this in myself recently and now I'm coming out on the other end of it... again. Again, I reject cynicism. Again, I reject despair. I proudly proclaim my completely un-cool interest in the world. I get a kick out of simple beauty, and again, I affirm that I will not be shamed into thinking I need to be more intense, more complicated, or darker than I am in my outlook. As a necessary corollary, I will, and do, distance myself from anyone or anything that threatens to pull me away from that, not in narcissistic defense of myself, but in defense of my faith.

And that's all I've got to say about that.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I can't say that I've ever done the "right" thing without paying some sort of significant price.

I decided to return to my year of not-dating, and in the process hurt the person I'd started to date. This is an oversimplification, but I'm not going into further detail for his sake and mine. Suffice to say that I know what I did was right in that it had integrity and I have my peace back, but I also feel like I've been standing against a strong winter wind for several hours... my eyes are watery, I'm numb, I can't really see straight and I have no energy. All I want is a return to warmth and safety and some sense of comfort. I suppose that will come. He for his part, is a resilient dude who has endured far worse than this and he will be fine. Like me, he knows that every bad experience is at least a good story, and he will undoubtedly take some comfort in that.

The writing workshop tonight was really hard. I was so tired... there has been so much going on, I am weary from all the unprocessed emotions I'm carrying around from this relationship, and work has taken a lot out of me. I know this is all a season and it will pass but right now I'm dead in the middle of it and exhausted. We were writing about purpose and intention, and I felt empty. What is my purpose? Do I live with intention? I think I give the impression that I do, because I speak and write forcefully and with passion. But it was damn hard to try to sum up my purpose. I guess it would be hard for anyone, but I suppose I expected to be good at answering that kind of question and I didn't feel like I was.

My explanation was that my purpose was to be at peace: with God, myself, and with others as far as I can manage that. Which sounds kind of lame. But I do think it sort of all boils down to that... I navigate by my emotional state to some degree because I have learned from hard experience that when I don't I mess things up royally. When my peace goes, I ask God to restore it, and when He doesn't, I fix what's messing up the peace. That's how I roll.

It sounds so selfish, though, doesn't it? I live for the maintenance of my own spiritual and emotional peace? But if I trace back my decision making, this is what guides me. I am looking for a life that I can live with. That leads to other things --wanting to help people, not being overly worried about money, a love of nature-- but the internal mechanism is that I am drawn to these things because they feel right... because I intuit, because I know beyond knowing, that this is the right direction... this is the correct decision. It doesn't sound like much of a purpose, does it? But at the bottom line, it is a desire to please God, because I know that most of the time my peace is gone because I'm being disobedient. I trust that when my spirit is at rest, it's because I'm going in the right direction.

So that's why I did the right thing and moved out of this relationship... because I know I'm not supposed to be with anybody right now. I set aside a year for myself because I really thought it was necessary and, for the first time in my life, possible. The selfish thing was dating him in the first place. I knew better... but that doesn't change that I hurt him, and that I also hurt me in the process.

Ok, so here I am... tired and wounded... wounded in the same place in my heart that has endured so many wounds. It is remarkable, I guess, that I can still feel in this place... so that in itself is reason to be grateful. Buuuttt I also feel dumb. This is such familiar territory... do I REALLY have to go over it again and again and again? Why can't I just wait for the right person, the right situation? Why can't I just hum along happily in my peace and leave the drama alone?

So, that'll be the goal for the home stretch... the last 4 months of 2008. As the year descends through fall into winter and the days shorten, I'll keep my peace, and my singleness, and my writing will undoubtedly improve.

Thanks for bearing with me through this wallowing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


I have recently heard at least two people --I think possibly more than that-- cleverly quote an unknown source by saying "the definition of insanity is doing the exact same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Each time I heard it, I shifted uncomfortably, vaguely aware that I could probably apply this to myself but uncertain as to why.

Well now I think I might know at least one reason. I think I have finally reached the point --again-- where I am close to having a meltdown due to overcommitments, personal drama, and stress at work. If I had a dollar for everytime I've reached this point in my life, I could probably comfortably quit my job and travel Europe for a year. It is dumb, it is unnecessary, and it is evidently hardwired into my psyche.

I have been kvetching all summer about my something-planned-for-every-night-of-the-week-and-all-weekend schedule, but I've really been grateful. I mean, none of the stuff I'm doing is odious to me. It's fun, and it generally involves lots of people that I really like and some of whom I actually love. I am particularly grateful for the writing workshop, which, ironically, I bailed on tonight because it was clear to me that I was going to start crying hysterically at any second if I didn't go home, have a beer, and do jack-shit for an evening.

Honestly, lately this is what I envision every time I think of everything I have to do...

When you get to this point of tiredness, everything starts to be a drain and a really big deal. Enter several hundred brand new culture shocked international students, most of them Indian and most of them acting like they're still elbowing their way through the streets of Hyderabad. God bless 'em. I get it, really I do. When you're freaked out by a new environment, one way to cope is to maniacally try to get control. I have a recollection of doing that in U.K., and a very kind advisor saying to me "I do hope you get a vacation soon. You always seem so terribly harrassed"... which of course utterly shocked and somewhat offended me because it implied that I didn't have everything perfectly together. Sigh.

So it's not like I don't understand, but it is almost physically painful for me to be around so much stress, irritation, and panic right now. I have lost my Zen. For the last two days, multiple people at work have been asking me why I'm upset. All of them thought they did something to make me mad. That bothers me.

So tomorrow night a Wedding Guest for my friend Bethany's wedding is going to come and crash on my living room floor for two nights. This did not seem like a big deal when I agreed to it... but I am now contemplating Said Wedding and my Bridesmaidly duties, and looking around my apartment, which I love but which is very me --that is, full of books and CDs and papers and cat fur and incense and candles and knick knacks from other countries and one dying plant and just general friendly disorder-- and having a little itsy-bitsy sense of resentment in anticipation of this Wedding Guest's judgement of my surroundings.

I'm also wondering if I'll be able to breathe in The Bridesmaid Dress, which is gorgeous but is all cleavage and a little tight up through the rib cage. I'm also anxious because Bethany is a Wonderful Person and knows a ton of Wonderful People and this really will be the Most Beautiful Wedding Ever and right now I feel like Pigpen with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

and let's not even get started on the Personal Drama... blooooody hell. Suffice to say that it is also me doing the same daggum thing over and over again, and that if you are a praying person, I could really use prayer about it. Thanks.

Ok, so tonight, I obeyed my instinct to have a beer and do jack-shit... and it was indeed lovely. I can see that I'm really going to have to force myself to enjoy life. This is another one of those Things I've Got To Accept About Myself. I've always thought that this was a passing thing, that once I finished my masters, or got another job, or made more money, or found the right church, or the right relationship, the right friends, or whatever else yadayadayada, that I would be able to relax... to just appreciate what is without twitchily contemplating what Might Be all the time. and without feeling like such a failure, which I do. A lot. I think everyone does in a little corner of themselves... and that everybody reading this who says "not me" actually feels it more than other people and is just lying really loud to keep themselves from feeling upset. I think feeling like a loser really is at the root of a lot of my constant nervousness. If I don't perform, then I've lost, then I really am a failure, then I really have wasted my talents.

And at the root, of course, that belief IS a failure... a failure of faith. I'm not feeling chipper enough to go deeply into that, but basically God isn't in a hurry about ANYTHING, and seeing myself where I'm at now and declaring myself a failure is not only short-sighted but probably sin... and maybe a leeetle bit of self-idolatry, putting myself at the center and not giving God cred both for what He's done and what He's going to do.

So... all that to say that I need to intentionally, methodically... chill... and to bring a little chillness to my day-to-day or risk losing my ever-loving mind.
Hugs to all.

Monday, August 4, 2008

the sound of cicadas...

It's unpleasantly warm in most of my apartment tonight. I could actually feel sweat beading and making its slow, slithery way down my forehead as I talked on the phone with Comcast, trying to fix my wireless connection. It's cooler back here in the bedroom, where I've set up shop in front of the open window. This is my favorite window in the apartment because it is almost entirely blocked by a tall bush... light comes through, but it's filtered, cool, and it jumps and sparkles when the wind blows the branches of the bush. It's an awesome place to write. I've lit two pillar candles to provide light without as much heat, and the ceiling fan is going full speed.

Ok, so why I don't just turn on the AC? For one reason and one reason only: the sound of cicadas. I don't mind the heat... it's important to me to be able to hear them.

When I was a kid, I did not like summers. They were long, they were lonely, they were boring, and they weren't going to advance my career. I'm not kidding... I actually thought this. Right after Christmas Break in the third grade, my teacher had us trace and cut out the number "1985" from faded dark blue construction paper and write on it all the things that we hoped to do in This New Year. I wrote, among other overly ambitious things, "Prepare for College". She read it and looked at me with her eyes wide. "Prepare for College??" I drew back to avoid the great green cloud of her coffee breath and informed her seriously "it's never too early". She laughed aloud, bathing me in the green cloud and embarrassing me thoroughly. It had not occurred to me that maybe I should be thinking about other things... you know, dolls or something. Her mockery outraged my young Machivellian mind, and I spent the rest of the day in offended dignity.

Anyway, so summer was a fruitless time of lolling around, being a child, which I didn't consider myself to be particularly good at. I greeted each day with whatever enthusiasm I could muster, and dragged myself outside with a book to escape the meaningless boredom of my existence. I also ordered free things by telephone... like information on Miracle Ear... because, you know, it's never too early to begin to prepare for hearing loss. I also leafed through my Mother's Prevention magazine and ordered catalogs of meditation tapes and crystals and stuff. Because I was stressed... by childhood.

I was a strange kid. I can admit that at this point in my life.

The sound of the cicadas started just as the end of the long tunnel of summer came up as a distant pinprick of light on the horizon. I remember sitting outside on the patio in the cool of the evening, escaping the heat of the non air-conditioned house, sniffing the warm green scent of the full-leafed trees and grass that had been baked in the sun all day, listening to the cicadas, feeling excitement in my stomach at the thought that school would start soon. Every year I thought would be The Year. The year I would be popular. The year I would really find school as interesting as the books that I checked out from the library and the exploring and playing I did in our backyard. The year a really cute boy would like me. This will be the year, this will be the year... I held so much hope at the end of every summer.

Every summer, when the cicadas start singing at the end of July and the beginning of August, I feel that clenching in my stomach again, that excitement filling me. My late summer dreams as a kid were about as exciting as I was, but they were a looking beyond what was immediately present, and they really made me feel happy and optimistic about the future. I hear the cicadas singing now and I look at my life in gratitude, for all the things I wasn't dreaming as a kid and didn't plan that have happened anyway... for the blessings of community and career and education and travel and music and etc. etc. etc. For the things I thought were burdens and curses that weren't, in the end. For the failures that have humbled me and the small successes that have healed me.

More simply than that, though, I hear the cicadas singing and I am grateful for this gift of hope that God has given me, that He gives us. Every year, they're there, reminding me of something that happened too early in my life for me to argue with now, something deep. In the fertile ground of my neurotic, overly serious child's mind, God gave me faith, and faith gave me hope, and that hope has kept me going through a lot more boredom than I ever thought I could tolerate, and a lot more frustration with myself and others than I would (or should) have imagined as a kid. "Hope that is seen is not hope," but sometimes it's real and substantial enough that it has kept me going and kept me happy-ish... happy enough to function... just like it did when I was a kid.

In the still-fertile ground of my neurotic, overly serious adult's mind, cicadas are an indirect reminder of the Promise that is always there, of the work already done in Christ, and of God's Faithfulness, year after year, season after season, morning after morning. He gives Really Good Gifts, and I am so very grateful.