Archive for the ‘pain’ Tag

The Long March   8 comments

When we face life honestly, bravely, and resolutely, it slices us with a thousand little deaths: truths we are loathe to admit, securities that have blocked our growth, long-fostered hopes that end with a sudden blowout or gradual leak against every effort to re-inflate them.  As Kimberly and I prepare to move to Asheville, NC, we are “downsizing,” a smooth word corporations use to put a positive spin on frantically casting everything overboard to save a sinking ship–more like foundering than streamlining.

I had no trouble giving away excess clothes and unused dishes, but when I sold my weight set, it went out the door with my dreams of a buff body still draped over it.  To my wife it was a dust-collecting eye-sore, but when I sold that bench, I gave up on a promise and hope.  It was my final concession that this frumpy body is the one I will take to the grave.  I finally admitted honestly that it was a wasted dream, sitting idle for so many years because my real values lay elsewhere.  And that’s okay… it’s even good.  I want to live out my true values and not be distracted by false ones.  But the good road often forks away from the desirable one.  Being good and being happy are often incommensurable.

Stripping away possessions can be a stripping off of dreams and securities, groundings and trajectories, plans and expectations.  This morning as I drove my pickup filled with ministry books to donate to a local college, one phrase pounded through my head: “I hate my life!”  Those particular books sat in boxes in my basement for ten years, waiting, full of hope for a revived ministry of preaching or teaching or leading, some role to play in bringing God’s goodness into the world.  They hung heavy with past joys long gone: the delight in studying and sharing truth with others, the deep satisfaction of experiencing spiritual usefulness by sharing gifts to benefit others.

I have pursued the truth as relentlessly as I can, and it has brought me so much more insight and freedom, self-knowledge and character.  I know now that much of what I did before was streaked through with blindspots and immaturity and ungodliness.  I had a deeply flawed understanding of God.  I am in a far better place personally and spiritually because of all the breaking, but I had hoped to come to the other side of the struggle, to rediscover joy and peace and fulfillment at a new, fuller, more meaningful level.  But I am only tired, deeply tired, and crushed and broken-hearted.  I feel as though I am on a death-march, lifting one foot after the other in my hopeless, stubborn faith.

If this rings true for your own experience, may you be encouraged that you are not alone.  Let us call out to one another in the dark.


Posted April 4, 2016 by janathangrace in Personal, Uncategorized

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The Hope within Depression   7 comments

I have little time before work and only 9 usable fingers, having chunked off the flat of my thumb in my belt sander–a story for another day–so this will be quick and rough, but I have thoughts I want to put down.  I watched an old episode of Joan of Arcadia recently and remembered why I liked it–the constant reminder that God does not play by our rules and often leaves us in the dark, even (or rather especially) about our own lives.  That is, I hate the experience, but I am grateful for the camaraderie of someone who also feels slapped in the face by life… every day… and cannot find a way to duck the swing.

I have been struggling more deeply with depression for the last few months (which is the reason for my absence here–depression reduces life to survival and little more).  It feels awful, so much like an actual physical trauma that I find myself catching my breath with the pain, and more recently grasping my head in my hands as I double over.  So I dig through my piles of options for some way to reduce the misery, but while I’m looking, my feelings change.  How do you address something which is  unpredictable, indiscernible, uncontrollable.  I don’t mean I don’t have any influence over my feelings, but it is like driving with a knee around mountain curves… in the fog.  So my feelings are constantly in the ditch–it is all I can manage to keep from going over the embankment.

Some days I wake up feeling okay… as long as I just lie there in a drowsy stupor.  That makes me think that naps might be a way to avoid my misery… which is true, but not helpful since I can’t live the rest of my life in a coma.  It just delays the returning blackness, it doesn’t lighten it.  So basically any strategy for avoiding life and its attendant feelings–loving on my dogs, watching TV, reading Facebook–is only a distraction from feeling anything deep or meaningful, it doesn’t resolve or heal or soften those bad feelings that come flooding back the moment I come out of the circus show.

For my religiously minded friends with the easy and certain solution–yes, I keep trying prayer and Bible reading as I am able, I keep looking for a church that doesn’t make me feel even worse afterwards.  These have not brought any fundamental relief or changed my experience of life.  And for my friends who have found some relief in medicine–I’ve tried several iterations, no luck so far.

Honestly it is not my staggering emotions that are the fundamental soul problem so much as the lack of control and confusion.  If I believed that my depression were God-ordained and inescapable, it would relieve me of desperately seeking solutions (which puts a great deal of pressure on myself, and temptation to self-blame).  I could settle for learning how to manage the life I am given.  But since I have small influences on my emotions, it keeps me actively engaged.  Were I to conclude that I had no real control and that my emotional experience of life was wholly in the hands of God, I could accept my lack of control, but that would exacerbate my confusion, not only over why this was God’s choice for me, but how I am to respond to it.

Regarding the first, the very values God promotes are undermined by my depression, not simply because of the inherent self-focus needed and the sapping of all motivation, but because of its intense draining of energy: I don’t have the normal resources from which to draw to be generous-minded, hard-working, other-oriented.  Patience looks more like resignation, hope seems more like stubbornness.  Wisdom seems to be stymied–if I have too little insight for my own life, what do I have to give to others?  And to find any joy present in this mess would require a complete re-definition.

Regarding the second, my response to intractable emotions, it is hard enough to find a rhythm for the dance of life when one’s emotions are consistent, even consistently miserable.  A strategy, plan, step-by-step approach can be developed when the playing field is stable, but when it constantly changes, it throws off all efforts to establish patterns, learn dynamics, and create a workable approach.

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That was yesterday.  I ran out of time before I could post.  But the gears started to spin as I wrote.  To suppose that patience as resignation or hope as stubbornness is somehow a poorer, weaker form of the real virtue is to undermine the very breadth and variegated beauty of each virtue, to stereotype, slot, and truncate the vast panoply of experience and expression of each facet of goodness.  We have often tried to distill attributes into some pure or regnant form, a person that most exemplifies some particular value, say of courage or discipline.  So the essence of real love is seen as mother love, as though there is only one kind of love and everyone should emulate it.  But what if there are many unique and invaluable forms of love that are missed by this reduction, that look different from mother love but have their own irreplaceable value: what of the simplicity and humility of a child’s love, the equality and intentionality of a friend’s love, the intensity and intertwining of a spouse’s love… and so even those of us under the heavy weight of depression have a unique offering of love, one of deep understanding and empathy and acceptance.  Perhaps depression does not inherently limit, sap, or dull our virtues, but instead refines, strengthens, sharpens them with a special coloring.  Our virtues have their own beauty and power, unique role and expression, a glory all their own.


Posted December 21, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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Singing in the Dark   1 comment

We need good stories, stories of courage and generosity and unexpected kindness.  In this dark world, we need to share stories of endurance and empathy and reconciliation–not to falsify reality, to romanticize the present or expect fairytale endings here, but to remind us that there is some good still, some glimmer of light to warm our hearts.

Bubblewrapping ourselves with comfortable lifestyles to avoid this broken world may bring picket-fence peace, but is not living by faith.  Faith is never a denial of the bad.  The very reason we are called to live in hope is that our present is rife with heartbreak.  The tintinnabulations of good that we catch are echos of a future yet to be.  So we tell those little stories of good to recall our coming deliverance, to remind ourselves that the infinite and eternal glory of God that surrounds this dark closet of our earthly days is the far greater reality, though it only reaches us through the cracks of our prison.  Those glints of good we share with one another makes our suffering more endurable though it may not lighten our present pain.

So come let us sing to one another in the dark and encourage our hearts with hope of redemption.  God is good, and one day we will see it and feel it and breathe it, but until then let us cheer ourselves with the little sparkles of good that we daily encounter.

Of the many heart-warming stories out there, here is a good one.

Posted May 29, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Pushing Gratitude   4 comments

One of my friends posted this to Facebook yesterday:


Right then I was in an emotional place to find that picture encouraging, but often I’m not.  The friend who posted this is gracious and gentle, so I would not take offense even if I were in the throes of despondency, especially since she did not send it personally to me.  I only want to underscore the importance of context–my emotional framework shapes my understanding of the message (and this message of positive spin is one of the fundamental tenets of our American culture).  Notice how crucial the background picture is to the sentiment–its impact is subtle but powerful.  Let me demonstrate:


That is a profoundly different message, hugely dissonant.  What was a nice nudge towards contentment is suddenly disturbingly trite.  When someone’s inner world feels this broken, thankfulness will not fix it.  Gratitude has a role even in tragedy, but it is not the remedy for tragedy.  The hungry need food, the homeless need shelter, the lonely need companionship, the vulnerable need safety, the wounded need healing.  Sometimes what I have is not enough, even if I’m grateful.  Scripture wisely tells us to weep with those who weep rather than give them reasons to cheer up.

I realize some folks want to be pointed to the positives, but for many, the chipper “Be grateful!” can be code for “Stop whining!” and that shaming message discredits their needs and belittles their distress.   Perhaps what they need is permission to feel the injustice, encouragement to sit with their sadness,  help to empathize with their own sense of loss.  Maybe the very words they need to hear are, “Yes, it is bad, very bad.  You must feel awful,” rather than, “It’s not as bad as it seems. Look on the bright side.”  Perhaps we could all benefit from learning to sit longer with our sorrow.

Posted March 19, 2014 by janathangrace in thoughts

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It Hurts   Leave a comment

Emotional shrapnel from old battles tore unexpectedly at my vitals this afternoon, searing my heart from some random twist in my psyche as I drove down Lakeside Avenue.  It flares up like this without warning, without any evident cause… something I saw or heard or remembered that touches a place still raw and sore, but too deep to identify.  I am learning to live with it like rheumatism.  Slow down, ease off, go gently till it lifts in an hour or day or month.  Another tough opportunity to learn self compassion.

Posted March 18, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Cursing My Way to Empathy   6 comments

Yesterday I applied for a groundskeeper position at Lynchburg College because it’s a full-time job and my current library position is part-time… and I enjoy yard work… and I’ve been thinking about starting an M.A. in counseling (free credits with full time work). Then I took Mazie for a walk as my agitation slowly crescendoed over my creaking joints, “What the blankety-blank am I doing?! My body can’t stand up under all that physical labor,” I griped as I limped along with a leg that’s been bothering me for… well… on and off for over a year.  “Why the blankety-blank are you going to study counseling?  One more degree to stack against the other useless ones after you discover you don’t like the work?”  This was just the latest on a life piled high with dead-end schemes, so I walked faster to drive out my perturbation… which just made my calf hurt more.

I was a couple miles down the trail, and as I’d left behind the other strollers, I was emboldened to turn my muttering into short, loud exclamations of woe.  Then I started singing a spontaneous dirge.  “I hate life on this wretched earth; full of misery, without mirth. What the heck were you thinking, God?  This is worse than a filthy clod.”  Hey, don’t criticize, I had to make up each line on the spot in 4/4 time.  I would tell you the chorus, but it was a pounding four-letter word, and some of my readers might be offended.  I swept other unfortunates into my lyrics, singing for all of us, and that curved around to lines of empathy for them and my wish to be supportive of them in their struggles.  And finally I came full circle to seeing God as understanding and empathizing, as being one of the wounded rather than the wounder.  That’s not a typical Christian approach: cursing my way back to faith.  But then, I’m not very typical.

Posted March 6, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Some Kinds of Depression Are Better Than Others   6 comments

My latest bout of bruising depression that stomped in two weeks ago seems to be slipping away.  I don’t know why it came, I don’t know why it is pulling out.  For two or three days I have had a precarious emotional detente.  I can see the shadowy figures outside casing the place, but they haven’t broken in again. Their brooding distance doesn’t make for peace… or even recovery, but it gives relief.  I think if I keep steady, the marauders will draw back.  Those with experience know that depression includes more than awful feelings.  Even when the black lifts, the gray fog continues to deaden and debilitate, but I’d rather be under a cloud than under assault.fog

Posted February 10, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Meaningless Melancholy   7 comments

Some days I just ache.  I can feel my mouth pulled into the lines of a half-grimace, like someone trying to cover up an irrepressible agony.  The very question of hope versus hopelessness grows distant as the present pain blocks out any future.  There is just this moment… which stretches on hour after hour.  I can distract myself, but it seems so futile–like playing peek-a-boo with a feverish baby.  At least if I had some huge loss, say of a loved-one, I would have clarity about the reason for my pain, a direction to focus my feelings, and hope that over time some healing would come.  It would make sense.  And others would understand.  What is there even to share or cry over if the misery is nameless?

Posted February 4, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Ambushed   Leave a comment

Sadness and pain have been oozing from my heart for a week or more.  I don’t know its source, so I can’t seek a cure. Even taking a walk, which usually does me good, has not staunched the ache.   Yesterday I shuffled into the kitchen, and it struck me in the gut like a knife… one moment I am thinking about lunch, and the next I am cringing.  Something I saw out of the corner of my soul, perhaps the flash of some failure past that stings my feelings but does not register conscious thoughts for me to confront and fight. When the edges of the cut are raw, the slightest touch can shock the nerves.  It will eventually lift, but for now I stagger along, looking for any little cubbyhole to tuck my soul into for a brief respite.hiding

Posted February 1, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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I Wonder   4 comments

I wonder what it’s like to be normal, to feel the weight of life’s stresses and hardships balanced out by its joys and pleasures.  I wonder what it’s like not to fight against deep misery every day. not feel crushed by the brokenness of the world.  I expect that when the bumps in the road seem small, the catch phrase verses and bumper sticker encouragements have enough lift to clear your axle.  For the average guy, commonsense advice for tackling problems probably works.

My Facebook friends cheer one another on with links to meditations and quotes that inspire them, and I hear one more rousing verse of Kumbaya as their bus pulls away from the stop where I am left standing.  Unfortunately, I can’t even force myself to see my world from this positive perspective.  I cannot “choose” to be happy.  I’ve tried.  I would have to live in denial of my actual emotional experiences, and I seem constitutionally incapable of that.  I can choose to follow God, to trust Him as best I can, and I do, each day in the face of emotional riptides, but it has led to only tidbits and crumbs of peace and joy.

What is it like to feel life is good, expectations and hopes are often satisfied, and goals motivate rather than burden?  What is it like to have all that extra energy, to have room for creativity and exploration and a wide range of possibilities?  I wonder how it changes a person’s perspective, spirituality, approach to the day’s happenings, understanding of others.   Do those folks use that big supply of emotional resources to understand and face into their fears?  At the expense of their own comfort, do they embrace those who are different and disagree.  Do they strip back their layers of self-protection and dig deep into who they really are?  I wonder.

Posted September 16, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal

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