This is unprocessed emotion. I will say fuck a lot. Proceed with that knowledge.
We are heartbroken. Again. We send our love to the victims of a mass shooting. Again. We come together to weep and mourn our dead. Again.
I can’t go straight to hope, right now. I can’t leap straight from Someone took a gun that they should never have had access to into a place where people were living their lives and this monster killed them to Let’s look for the good. We don’t know why. We think he was anti-gay. There have been suggestions that he’d recently pledged allegiance to ISIS. It’s too soon to know anything for sure, though, and anything we may hear is speculative. All we know is that this person felt enough hate to walk into a night club and shoot it up. 50 people are gone. 50 souls. 50 people who were each the most important person in the world to someone. 50 best friends. 50 families who have had their hearts cut out. 50 souls. Gone. That’s what we know.
I’ll be honest. I’m fighting against hate, right now. I’m fighting not to hate the people who have suggested that this shooting was inevitable or somehow less tragic because it happened to the LGBTQ+ community. I am trying not to hate the people who STILL stand against common sense gun regulations. I’m trying not to hate people who made such a goddamned racket a month ago over bathroom regulations for transgender men and women, and are silent today in the face of this slaughter. I’m trying not to hate Donald Trump, who has proven himself to be utterly devoid of compassion, judgement, and basic human decency. He is the embodiment of moral repugnance. His comments on the shooting were to thank people for their “congrats” about being right on radical Islam. This is not about you, you walking shit stain. The suggestion that this unimaginable tragedy, the worst mass shooting in our nation’s history, is somehow a proving grounds for your campaign is the most despicable way to handle yourself right now. Donald Trump, I’m trying so hard not to hate you. I know hate is what caused the shooter to walk into that club last night, and I don’t want to make room for hate in my soul. But you make it really fucking hard not to hate you.
I’m trying really hard to feel all of this and not give in to the hatred that is boiling right under the surface. I know we have to go right into the heart of our deepest and darkest emotions in order to get to the other side of them, but I’m afraid of the level of hate I’m battling right now. I’m afraid of feeling the same thing that monster felt. I don’t want to share ANYTHING with him. I don’t want to share anything with the people I’m trying not to hate.
I hate this.
I want to rage and cry and beat something.
I want to scream and scream and scream.
The only possible answer, the only way to get through this kind of pain, the only light that exists in this darkness is LOVE. I know that. I want to love right now. It is fucking hard to love my enemies right now. It is hard to love those who will be silent about this. It is hard to love those who will suggest this was the consequence of what they call “sin”. It is hard to know that people I care about will believe that “this is what happens when…”. It is fucking hard to look into the eyes of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, who have been on the receiving end of the hatred I’m currently trying not to feel, and say to them, AGAIN, that I’m so sorry. It is hard to know that 50 families will bury their loved ones this week while others will call them sinners and blow this off. God, I’m trying so hard not to hate.
I’m trying not to drown in the hopelessness of this. I’m trying not to think that it’s only a matter of time before we have a worse shooting than this one. I’m trying not to remember that, after Sandy Hook, I thought, “Surely now they’ll do something.” I’m trying not to hate the people who make up the NRA and the gun lobbies and those who continue to obstruct gun regulations by suggesting that Obama is trying to take their guns away. I’m trying to see the humanity of the people who have stood in the way of those regulations, but mostly I’m just trying not to hate them, right now. I’m trying not to hate those politicians who prey on people’s worst fears to keep themselves in power.
All I know to do right now is feel. Everything. Feel the pain, the rage, the hopelessness, the fury, the grief. It feels so much bigger than any one of us, this darkness, which is why we all have to feel it. We have to carry it together. It would kill any man who tried to carry it on his own. It would drive him to kill others. That’s what happened last night. One man carried all of his own rage, hatred, hopelessness, and fury into that bar and he killed people because of it. I’m terrified of what hate can do. I don’t want to hate. I don’t want that inside of me, like a cancer killing everything it touches. I don’t want my first reaction to be “I fucking HATE that guy.” I really, really don’t want to hate.
So I’m going to scream and rage and cry all the way through this darkness and trust that there is something other than hate on the other side. I don’t know what’s on the other side of this. I hope it’s action. I hope it’s change. I hope it’s new legislation. I hope it’s policy change. I hope it’s greater justice and equality for all. And, now, as I write this, I see why we have to feel all the darkness. Because it shows us what to hope for. I think rage is violently dangerous unless it forces us to do better. Rage that doesn’t end in justice, activism, education, and ultimately LOVE ends in a body count.
If you’re trying not to hate, if you’re raging and screaming and crying and beating things, keep going. Go all the way through it. Feel every ounce of it. And then get ready, because we have got some serious shit to do.
I crave an earthy spirituality, fingers dug deep into the soil. I ache for a life lived with open hands. These closed fists, with all their clinging and wringing out of breath, grasping after certainty as if after fists full of water, they thirst to let the river run right through.
These hands have clung to all manner of empty promises. They’ve closed tight around money, men, and metaphor and none of these were mine to own. Not even my life is my own to grasp. Money spent, lovers left behind, beliefs now ringing hollow, all of it gone in spite of my clenched fists.
Now I’ll plunge my hands deep into the dirt, tears streaming into soil; I’ll feel the ground beneath me. I will carry truth with open hands. I crave an earthy life in all it’s sweaty, sexy, sacred, vital, redemptive, renewing, grounded, ancient, brand new-ness where we all turn soil over seed with warn, weathered, open hands.
The universe is a miracle, and we’re all part of it. 13.7 billion years of stardust expanding and exploding and evolving, and we’re still born of the same stuff that God breathed into motion before everything. Saturn’s icy rings and the red dust covering Mars, the galaxies burning with stars we’ll never see; all of it is made of the stuff that has always been and will always be. The miracle of that, among other things, is that the raw materials that make up you and me may once have orbited Neptune or floated atop the Dead Sea or lay trapped in the dreadlocks of a Rastafarian. To say we’re all connected would be to say that outer space is kind of big. It’s more true than we can comprehend.
Before we had the technology to look past our sky and see into the vast expanse of space, God was believed to be someone up in the heavens who could reach into our world and intervene every now and again, providing rain and sunlight and the occasional miraculous sign. Our world happened right here, God happened up there. When things die we bury them in the ground, so the ancient poets and storytellers wrote about evil coming from down there. The idea was that there were 3 spatial levels to the universe- up there, right here, and down there- where God lived, we lived, and evil lived, respectively. When you read ancient stories, this way of seeing the world frames and is the basis for everything humanity understood about God for a really long time. They weren’t able to look into space and see the lack of Heavenly mansions, or probe deeply into the center of the earth and see a lack of eternal torment. They used the understanding they had at the time to talk about and try to understand God. It was all they had to work with. It wasn’t wrong, they just didn’t have telescopes yet.
Now, we do. We have a better understanding of how the universe came to be (Which is still largely a mystery, but we’ve got some solid Theories), we figured out that the Earth isn’t the center of it- nor is it flat- and we’ve sent people into space to see what kinds of things we can find. Science has given us incredible insight into how we got here, and it seems to suggest pretty strongly that it didn’t happen quite the way our ancient poets thought it did. Perhaps, though, the ancient poets and storytellers weren’t attempting to write a thorough scientific record of the history of the universe, but were doing what poets and storytellers do best- dress our most profound mysteries in language and words, so they could speak about the things at which we marvel.
I have always assigned a literal understanding to matters of God, but I’m learning more and more that God will not be contained in my literal understanding of anything. Because, you see, when we talk about God we’re doing what the storytellers did- wrapping up the infinite mysteries of the universe in words. When it comes to words, sometimes you need a scientist and sometimes you need a poet. When I hear Neil Degrasse Tyson lecture about the origins of the universe and the process by which stardust became the human race, that doesn’t minimize or explain away my concept of God- It tells me that I haven’t even begun to understand God and the miracle of life will not be contained to 6 literal days as I know them. When I consider that something like 96% of the knowable universe is dark matter and if you could compress all of the mass of human life down to its tangible parts all of humanity fit into a sugar cube, that tells me that I have not even begun to fathom how tremendous God is. It tells me that God cannot possibly be the meddling mansion curator we sometimes think God is, reaching down into Earth to provide convenient parking spaces or manifest sports cars to the faithful. God is the energy, the electricity, the very Source from which all life flows. God is not in the business of manifesting parking spaces when there is genocide happening in Syria. I reject that limited, nauseating, entitled, narrow idea of God.
He will not be contained by our words, but we do need words. When the Psalmist wrote:
We need the artists. This summer, I stood next to a sculpture by Rodin. It was a sculpture of Eve in the Garden of Eden. I am a person who does not believe there was a literal woman named Eve or a literal Garden of Eden, but when I looked at that sculpture I wept. I know what it means to feel ashamed, to be consumed by guilt, to want to run and hide. I know what it feels like to feel naked and vulnerable and unsafe. So, when I saw that sculpture of Eve it didn’t matter that science tells me she probably never walked around a garden and got tricked by a snake. The story of Eve and her shame is more true than literally true, because it speaks to a universal human experience. It tells the story of arrogance and loss and guilt and rejection and fear and shame. What human hasn’t felt those things?
The stories we tell and the poems we write and the art we create about God remind us that we’re connected to each other and we’ve all been trying to work this God business out for as long as we’ve walked the earth. We do a disservice to the artist, the poet, the storyteller when we force their art to be science. We do a disservice to science when we force it to be poetry. We do a disservice to ourselves when we force God to fit in any of those boxes, exclusively. It takes all of it.
The universe is a miracle and we’re all part of it. 13.7 billion light years of expansion and explosion and evolution and God always drawing us out of darkness and into Light. I believe God still breathes life into the world. We may be small, but we have great love to give because the breath of God- a God who loves and is Love- fills our lungs and drives our hearts to beat. Jane Fonda said once that there is a hum in all of us for reverence, for God. I believe that hum is a steady bass line of Divinity, drawing us closer to one another and deeper into God. It will not- God will not- be contained.
Nothing will bring you down from the ivory tower of your own ego faster than looking at your earbuds for the first time in a month and realizing that you are little more than a disgusting meat sack with a slightly larger brain than an ape. You’re not even that far removed from the ape, your ancestors just took a hard left somewhere a few hundred million years ago and evolved into this human thing that can make big words and do more damage. Dirty, waxy earbuds remind me that I am not so great, after all. I get so wrapped up in my own self righteousness, sometimes, I forget that I’m a “meat puppet with a supercomputer for a brain,” as author Elizabeth Gilbert so honestly said on my favorite podcast, last week. I recently left Facebook (hopefully for good but you never know) because I genuinely hate the version of myself that I become when I’m interacting with people on Facebook. I’m either wrapped up in my own self righteous anger at the more politically conservative monkeys on my page or I’m caught up in telling the best possible version of my own life that I forget that I am, in fact, also a ridiculous dancing monkey who doesn’t clean her earbuds often enough. Nothing about that story is compelling. Nothing about hating Donald Trump is compelling. Nothing about arguing with the same angry Republicans is compelling. Nothing about Kim fucking Davis is compelling. Why do I get so angry about these things, then? Why do I find so much comfort in my rage at these people? Because, damnit, they’re me. I’m just as capable of being the monstrous ego-maniac who loves little more than the sound of it’s own voice as Donald Trump. I’m sometimes as blitheringly stupid and victim-minded as Kim Davis. I’m as terrified of “the other” as the damn Republican party, and that’s why I rail the hardest against them. If I hate it in them hard enough, then I don’t have to see it in myself. Ugh. Gross.
You know what is compelling? Calling out the things in myself that I’m terrified of, naming the bullshit for what it is, and honoring the tiny spark of God inside of myself that wants to make itself known. That’s interesting. Working backwards from my present resistance to see into the cruddy, sticky guts of my own fear and shame? That’s worth the time. It occurred to me this morning that deep in the guts of my reluctance to go to church is the memory of my experience as a teenager in youth group. I went to a church full of people who took care of one another and, I’m sure, genuinely wanted to experience something of God. However, the youth group was a bit of a shit show for me. Certainly my experience isn’t universal for everyone who attends youth group, or even for everyone who attended that youth group, but it is where my resistance with church begins. I started secretly dating one of the youth group leaders when I was 16 years old and I saw behind the curtain of the “Godly youth leader” show pretty quickly. These were a team of people who I now realize were being sold the same “Love Jesus and act right” narrative I’d been buying and were probably as confused about all of this then as I was when I was in college. But, at the time, I was 16 and they were the grown ups who were supposed to be “walking the walk.” What I found when I started dating that guy felt like a huge betrayal of the system of morality that I was being sold on Sunday morning and Wednesday night- a morality that I was highly invested in. Back then, it was a big deal to me to realize that the abstinence and sobriety preaching youth group staff were all getting drunk and sleeping with each other on the weekends. I was secretly ushered into the shadows of the strange world that is evangelical youth leadership (again, not a universal experience and I’m sure there are many, many youth group staffs who aren’t perpetuating these shenanigans) , and although it felt incredibly cool to be sneaking around with one of them, it also ruined me for the whole “Wednesday night worship” scene. I wasn’t long for youth group after that, although I kept sneaking around with one of the leaders who told me stories about the wild parties and sex that happened when they weren’t standing in front of the kids, encouraging them to date Jesus.
I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy working through the fear and shame elements of that story and I’ve done damn good work restoring my sense of self, work I’m proud of because it took a lot of digging to sort through the multi-layered mountain of lies I’d come to believe about myself. I feel pretty solid, there. In light of that story, though, it makes sense that over 10 years later I’m deeply reluctant to get back into the “love Jesus and act right” version of church, and that seems to be the predominant narrative in Bible Belt, USA. The “love Jesus and act right” narrative is not at all compelling, and I’d rather do yoga and get brunch and take a nap than hear that story every week. I got to experience an event called “Beer and Hymns” at a local bar in Nashville the other night, and you know what? It was damn interesting. Here were people gathered together to drink delicious beer and sings songs about God and be nice to each other and that felt more sacred and compelling than just about any church service I’d ever attended. All these voices joined together in a place with zero pretense about who had the most “Christ-like” behavior or the most “right” beliefs, and we laughed and sang and made friends and it was more compelling than any hour I’d ever spent on fucking Facebook. When I hear sermons along the lines of “If you really love Jesus, you will…” or “Jesus died because your wretchedness…” or “Christians don’t…” I want to get out of there as fast as possible. Not interesting. Not nourishing. Not the freakin point.
Come live life with me. Let’s go for a walk. Let’s grab a glass of wine. Let’s not pretend that we don’t curse, ever. Let’s not pretend that we give a damn whether or not people have sex before they get married. Let’s tackle some shit that matters, yeah? Let’s talk about how insane it is that we’re little more than meat puppets with supercomputers for brains, and somehow we’re also made from the same stardust that exploded into life in the beginning of everything. Let’s talk about how beautiful it is that when I talk about God and when someone on the other side of the world talks about God, those ideas can sound drastically different but we’re talking about the same thing and that is beautiful and exactly how we need it to be. Let’s talk about how none of us really knows what happens after we die and it matters so much how we live while we’re here, because we really only have one moment at a time to be kind to one another. Let’s talk about how the things we attack in other people are the things we hate most in ourselves, and we are all capable of Trumping out. Terrifying. Let’s overcome some shit from our pasts. Let’s figure out how to meditate and soak up the present. Let’s realize that Jesus didn’t come here to build walls that define and contain His spirit, He came here to show us how to set that spirit loose on a hurting world that desperately needs to be heard, loved, and provided for. Let’s not pretend that we have something special in our version of faith that everyone else needs or they’re going to hell. Let’s listen and learn because we are all made from the same substance and need the same love to save us from ourselves.
If you ever need a reminder just take a look at your earbuds, ya damn monkey.
“The thing about fear and creativity is that they will always be linked.”
“There’s not a lot of room for dignity in a creative life. Dignity is just another incarnation of fear.”
– Liz Gilbert, Magic Lessons Episode #9, “Dear Creativity and Fear”
If you create in any capacity in your life, I highly recommend checking out Liz Gilbert’s new podcast, “Magic Lessons,” where she gives practical advice to artists who feel stuck in their creative lives. I listened to her podcast as I walked the dog this afternoon and these two lines shot out of the conversation right at me, like darts. Liz was talking to a photographer who wants to take her creativity in a new direction, towards podcasting, and felt what she called a fear based betrayal of her photography when she considered expressing herself in this new way. That was interesting to me because I’m doing a lot of reading, meditating, and writing about fear lately in my study about how the wiring of the brain effects worldview and behavior. The fear response is a natural and necessary part of how our brain keeps us alive. Our brains evolved in an environment where we played the roles of both predator and prey, and there had to be a mechanism in place to keep us from being eaten back when people were fair game for a big meal. Giant bear chasing you through the woods? You’re going to be really thankful that the fear response in your brain gives you a shot of epinephrine to speed up your heart rate so it can pump your blood faster and dilate your pupils so you can take in more light, cortisol to suppress your immune system so you are less susceptible to inflammation from wounds, stress hormones to distract you from the other primal states- hungry and horny- and major stimulation to your amygdala which seeks out and identifies negative feedback (bear attacks) to avoid pain. The limbic system is responsible for keeping us alive when we’re in life or death situations, so it can be a helpful thing to have when you’re in a pinch. Here’s the catch, though. Your limbic system doesn’t know the difference between fear from a bear attack and fear from the possibility of starting a new creative project, telling someone you love them, skydiving, or singing karaoke. Fear registers in the brain as fear, no matter the source. This explains why the fear of getting on stage to speak in public manifests itself, for some, in much the same way as fear of getting truck by a train. When there is no bear, when there is no oncoming train, what are we to do with fear? How are we to deal with this biological hard-wiring when our higher consciousness knows the threat is not real, but we can sense fear shutting down our ability to act?
The first step, truly, is understanding. If we understand why fear makes our heart rate shoot through the roof when our name gets called to accept an award, why our internal alarms fire like a 21 gun salute when that person walks into the room, why our higher functions seems to shut down and all we want to do is self-protect instead of having a difficult conversation, then we can begin to deal with the reality of relatively low stakes situations in which we find ourselves responding as if a velociraptor were hot on our heels. There are structures and systems in our nervous system which evolved, very effectively, to keep us alive. What we’ve been talking about so far is the sympathetic nervous system. Even when we feel calm and balanced, this system is constantly scanning the world around us looking for threats, to which it is particularly sensitive.
Our brains register and hold onto negative feedback much more readily than positive feedback, and our instincts drive us to avoid potential pain much more strongly than they drive us to seek out pleasure. Think about the greatest physical pain you’ve ever felt. Third degree burn? Gunshot wound? Broken bones? Now think about the greatest physical pleasure you’ve ever felt. Chances are your body reacted more strongly to the memories of pain than to the memories of pleasure. I can think fondly on a great night of sex and intimacy and feel warm fuzzies, but if I think about the time a doctor plunged a 5 inch needle into my hip socket to give me a steroid shot deep inside the joint, my entire body reacts. My shoulders tense up, my hands get hot, my heart starts to race, my jaw clenches… you get the idea. Our souls love the warm fuzzies, but, when it comes to survival the limbic system wins. Your nervous system is going to work a lot harder to keep you away from harm than it ever would to help you achieve a comparable reward. For a system with headquarters in the brain, it’s all braun.
Imagine living your life in a constant or even frequent state of fear, anxiety, or panic. Because all of the systems of your body are connected, that would be a short life. Living with this fear response constantly engaged can cause ulcers, heart attacks, irritable bowel syndrome, lowered libido, type II diabetes, and a host of other incredibly unpleasant conditions. Imagine having your higher functions suppressed for days or weeks at a time, your body in a near constant state of fight or flight. Not. Fun. But, many people in our world live that life every day. They’re consistently on high alert, anticipating attacks. These are not usually the most pleasant people to be around.
Ready for some good news? You have the ability to counter-balance this fight or flight limbic system response. You are capable of sending messages to the brain that suppress this biological response and flood your brain with calming and relaxing chemicals to help you chill the fuck out. The sympathetic nervous system exists to respond to changes around you (temperature changes, oncoming traffic, velociraptors, etc), but your normal state is parasympathetic activation- the rest and relax state of your autonomic nervous system. Your parasympathetic nervous system keeps your ship steady and on course, and the sympathetic nervous system fires alarms when threats come into view. When you start to sense alarms going off, and you want to respond to the trigger from a state of relaxation and tranquility rather than panic and fear, guess what you do to reactivate parasympathetic calm?
You take a deep breath.
You take another deep breath.
You take another deep breath.
You take an even longer deep breath.
You take an even longer deep breath.
You choose calm.
The most effective tool you have at your disposal to live from a place of calm rather than reactivity is a thing you do all day every day without even thinking about it. Breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. That is the secret. When you breath deeply and slowly, your muscles relax and your heart beat slows down. That sends signals to the sympathetic nervous system that all is well, that there is no bear. The fires cool a little at a time until you’re left with a necessary but not threatening flame of limbic activity. Then, you get to act. You get to jump out of the plane, put the painting on display, tell the person you love them, belt out Shania Twain in front of drunken strangers. You’re not afraid anymore, or if you are, you’re not frozen. You’re not fighting. You’re not running away. You’re calm and resolved and at peace, even though there’s still a fire burning inside. What a way to live.
Ready for the spiritual connection? The pain itself doesn’t cause most of our suffering, you guys. The pain is usually short and fast. Sometimes, it lingers, but the most intense suffering we experience comes not from the fear or the pain but from our reaction to it. We want to tell that person we love them, but every time we think about it we get that limbic response and we spend a week thinking about all the ways it could go wrong. The suffering wasn’t found in the moments of the limbic response, the suffering came about in the week of worry and self doubt and judgement we put ourselves through in reaction to it. So you want to put your art out there for the world to see but you’re afraid? Your suffering doesn’t come from the chemicals in your brain which register your fear. Your suffering comes from the rabbit hole of negative stories you write about yourself when you consider what it might feel like to be rejected. Want to sing Shania over karaoke but you’re afraid? You suffering doesn’t come because your brain registers fear, your suffering comes because you have told yourself all the reasons why you’re not good enough to sing and how shameful it would be to do it. Want to jump out of the plane? Do it. The fear passes about 2 seconds after you leap.
We think we suffer because of fear, but really we suffer because of how we deal with fear. The next time you feel the alarms go off, take some time to breathe and calm yourself down. See how much you are able to lessen your suffering by simply becoming aware of your own patterns, tendencies, and reactions. You may still feel fear, but you will start to have a say over how much suffering you endure. I heard one time that often our suffering is like a painter who paints a portrait of a ghost and then becomes afraid that his house his haunted by that ghost. What ghosts are you painting in your house? Where have you allowed your reaction to fear to cause you unnecessary suffering?
Take a deep breath.
Alternately weepy and enraged, a 4 day tidal wave of hormonal surge showing no sign of relief, she sits on a plush grey floor pillow, in her tranquil new meditation room, candles softly glowing and all background noise shut outside the door behind her to meditate- because surely mindful concentration on her breath will bring some sense of calm. That’s what all the yogis say. That’s what she knows to be true. That is what she teaches. If you sit with your breath, allow yourself to be guided through seated meditation, observe the thoughts in your mind, and gently guide yourself back to the sound and sensation of breath, the mind will calm. Equilibrium will return. Balance will be restored.
Or you will get so hot that you have to strip down to nothing but your underwear, you’ll shake your head and actually pull your hair in frustration because why won’t he get out of your brain and leave you the hell alone, you’ll get irritated with the sound of your teacher’s voice guiding you through the single longest stretch of stillness you’ve ever endured and when he says, “Remember, we’re not after any specific end or any specific state, we’re simply here to observe the breath” you will actually say out loud that he is out of his damn mind and if you don’t get some peace by the end of this you’re never doing it again (even though you know you’ll be back in that spot in just a few hours), you’ll cry (again) because now you’ve failed at the one thing that was sure to bring you some relief, you’ll lie back on the rug because sitting upright brings intense reminders of all the abwork you did yesterday and it hurts to breath and cry and sit up and try to stay calm all at the same time so fuck the floor pillow, you’re lying down, and now that you’re lying down nearly naked you feel a little better but you’re also starting to fall asleep and having some seriously bizarre half conscious dreams about former colleagues and a cruise ship and what you would do with the ability to shrink like Ant-Man and right when you start to feel some sense of calm which is really just falling asleep you’ll hear a bell chime signaling the end of your “meditation.”
She laughs at how absurd that meditation felt and how futility doesn’t even begin to describe the last 25 minutes. She is supposed to call her mom but nothing in the world sounds worse than speaking out loud to a human- any human- right now. She’s supposed to walk the dog. She’s supposed to return emails. She’s supposed to reconcile accounts and complete about a hundred other administrative minutia which comprise the only part of her job she truly cannot stand. Instead, she takes a shower and put on a put of coffee. She unloads the dishwasher. She feeds the dog. She does simple, mindless tasks and gradually the tidal wave eases back and her head starts to clear. When she puts the glasses and plates away, she’s fully present in putting the glasses and plates away. When she pours her coffee, rolls out her mat, practices a little yoga… she’s calm.
The dog begins to squeak her new toy. The phone rings. An email dings into her inbox.
Every neuron in her brain begins firing like someone pulled the fire alarm in the middle of the night. Panic. Anger. Greed.
I was finally there! You have GOT to be kidding me with this. WHAT THE FUCK DOES EVERYONE WANT?!
So, she takes a deep breath and begins again. It’s all she can do. Begin again. Begin again. Begin again.
There is always a target behind the target, a motivation behind the impulse, an unmet need behind the behavior. I first learned and practiced being aware of this in the years I spent speaking to teenagers. After hundreds of schools and conversations with tens of thousands of kids, some trends became evident. Someone wants to talk about being teased or bullied at school? You probably need to first address issues of self worth, lack, and identity. Someone feels angry and victimized by everyone around him? You’re likely not dealing with someone who needs a quick fix, but who simply and desperately needs to feel heard, have his experience validated, and his pain recognized. Someone finds it difficult not to gossip or spread rumors about others? You must discuss fear and shame. This first week away from Facebook was about looking for the target behind the target, examining my triggers, and noticing what happens in the moments right before I want to get online. What unmet need am I trying to meet when I post to Facebook? What motivates the impulse to get online and scroll through my NewsFeed? What am I really after?
Have you ever done this? I found myself, at one point a couple of weeks ago, scrolling through Facebook on my computer when I absent-mindedly reached for my phone… to check Facebook. It was as if my right hand animated itself independently of my brain to see if I’d gotten any notifications in the half second since I last looked at the screen right in front of my face. I told myself: This is the behavior of a crazy person. You have to check yourself. Time for a break. A study released a couple of years ago says most people check their phones about 150 times a day. One hundred and fifty. That’s roughly 10 times every waking hour. 150 times every day we, at the very least, glance at our email, social media, messages, apps, and/or voicemail inbox. What are we doing?! We are either the most in demand generation of all time, or we have an addiction problem. I suspect it is the latter. As with any addiction, when we’re stuck in the loop our brains begin to send a chemical reward in the form of dopamine whenever we see that alert, that notification, that like. Someone is looking at what we’re putting out there, they like what they see enough to double tap, and we’re hooked. That dopamine rush that we would get if we took a drug, tasted our favorite food, had great sex, or did something we love, that rush trains our brains to want more of whatever caused it. The psychological addition is troubling, but the emotional implications are even worse. More on that in a bit. Someone who uses drugs or alcohol to numb emotional pain can get caught in the cycle of addiction because the dopamine released after that drink or that line gives the brain immediate gratification, so we go back for more. When what caused that release was the immediate gratification of seeing a notification on Facebook, our brains want more Facebook. Here’s the thing, though: We’re not simply looking at the screen, we’re looking for something. I’m not genuinely curious about what my second cousin’s ex boyfriend’s roommate is doing on vacation this week. I’m not legitimately concerned that if I don’t get on Facebook, I’ll miss something important going on in the world. If that were the case, I would check it once. Not 150 stupid times. So… what am I really looking for? I’m doing a little experiment to find out.
This fall is shaping up to be a pretty intense one for me, so I decided to take a month to deactivate my Facebook account and really focus on the projects demanding my attention, because I can’t (and don’t want to) half-ass any of this. Here’s my fall: Leading a 200 hour yoga teacher training, planning a citywide summer 2016 trip to Kenya with Africa Yoga Project, helping plan and put on the Music City Yoga Festival, writing this blog, and training for a half marathon. I do not need to be checking my phone 150 times a day, right now. One glance at Facebook takes me away from whatever task I’m working on for longer than I spend looking at the screen: There’s the time I take to open the app or navigate my browser, the time I spend actually looking at Facebook, and the time it takes me to to get re-engaged in whatever task I abandoned, which will be longer or shorter depending on that time I actually spent away from it. Because our brains are wired to do only one thing well at a time, and in spite of how much we talk a big game about multi-tasking, we’re really quite shitty at it. I’m either engaged in a task or I’m not. So, a big part of this Facebook break is for the sake of productivity. But the other part, the big, deep, scary, vulnerable, let’s stare all your triggers and insecurities in the face part, that’s what has me most interested. You see, I want to press pause on the moment right before I would normally get online, look critically at that moment, and figure out what is bubbling under the surface. I ask myself a few questions: What made me want to check right now? What do I feel is lacking from this moment? Am I trying to distract myself? From what? What would happen if I sat with this discomfort rather than going after that rush? In my first week off, here are some of my findings. (This is all highly scientific.)
- I’m simply procrastinating, and procrastination is little more than fear in fancy pajamas. So, what am I afraid of? I’m afraid that someone will figure out that I doubt myself and they will think I’m faking it. Truth? Sometimes, I’m faking it. What would be the worst outcome of someone knowing that sometimes, I fake it? They would know, they would tell everyone I care about that I’m a phony, I would lose all credibility, I’d never be successful at anything I ever try to do ever again. (I’ll call this the Shadow Dilemma- fearing the monstrous shadow of the tiny mouse.) What is the more likely outcome of my being honest that I don’t have all the answers that I would like to have, and I’m still learning? I would probably hear the words, “Me too.” Moment of solidarity and understanding created, lights turned on, all shadows gone. Not alone. Mutual respect hopefully sustained.
- I’m lonely. Now, don’t get me wrong here. I thoroughly enjoy alone time and have never had trouble keeping my own self company. I also love being single. I love that if I want to hop on a plane and fly to Dallas, I hop on a plane and fly to Dallas because I don’t have to run the financial implications or scheduling past anyone sharing my calendar or bank account. I have an intimate circle of close friends. Here’s the other side: I’m tired of the bullshit dating games, weary of the booty call scene, uninterested in dead end relationships, and I sometimes crave the comfort that comes from having the person who knows you best and loves you most in the room next to you. Naked. With coffee and cronuts. Because that’s what Sunday mornings are for. (Is that too specific? I don’t care.) Sometimes, damnit, I just want to find my partner but, in the absence of that kind of love, I go for the dopamine. I feel a sense of lack, of loneliness, and I get on Facebook or Tinder or Instagram because I know my brain will get a dopamine hit if I post something cute online and a bunch of people comment and then I won’t feel sad, anymore. Ugh. So, what happens if, instead of getting online I sit with this feeling? Can I sit here and let this loneliness crawl into bed with me until it gets bored and leaves? As it turns out, I kind of can. It’s not cute. But it’s also not forever. In fact, it usually goes away in less time than I would have spent online. Then, I can go get the dopamine from a bike ride or a run or get my own damn coffee and cronut, thankyouverymuch.
Fear and loneliness. My triggers are fear and loneliness. Now that I know, the real work begins. The next three weeks of this FaceBreak are about sitting with fear and loneliness without fighting, running away, or grasping for distractions. They only thing I know for certain about fear and loneliness is that they love the darkness, so I’m turning on the lights. I’m hanging cafe lights, stringing Christmas lights, and posting up a fleet of tiki torches. If fear and loneliness come calling, they’re going to have to make it past this canvas of twinkly lights and join my party. I can’t stop them from coming, but I sure can make it too bright for them to stick around.
Next time you do something online mindlessly, check yourself. Ask yourself why you feel compelled to do that thing at that moment. What is the target behind your target? What is your trigger? Do the work with me, won’t you? We have twinkly lights at this party, and it’s just getting started.
“Know thyself, yogis.”
I say this in my yoga classes, a lot. The wisdom is ancient and practicing it in your modern life means acknowledging your strengths and also possessing the self awareness to call out your own bullshit. For me, this means recognizing that the time I spend on Facebook every day is detrimental to my creative and productive self. It means saying, out loud, that I am shit with self control and spend far too much time every day scrolling through my feed. At this point, hitting the FB pipe comes from a place of lack. I get on Facebook because some part of me is unsatisfied with the reality of the moment I am actually living. It comes from a place of addiction. When I get likes, comments, or shares because I’ve been clever on Facebook my brain gives me a chemical reward not unlike what would happen if I’d taken a bump of cocaine. It comes from a place of procrastination, which is really just fear dressed up. I get on Facebook to distract myself from doing the real work of living, writing, and creating. There is a terrified demon in my head, and she can be a real controlling bitch. Here is a sample of a conversation we have on the reg.
Me: You’re really on to something, here. You have everything it takes to create the life you want, to build this blog, to write well, to meet the people who will collaborate with you. You can do this.
Evil Demon: But it’s so far away, and you’re going to have to do a lot of work to get there. Besides, you’re not technically qualified to do anything other than tell stories, teach yoga, and talk into a microphone. You have nothing original to offer. People will call you a hack, and then you would have done all of that work for nothing.
Me: You know I can see you, right, evil demon?
ED: You know what else you should see? What everyone in the world is up to on Facebook. Just check it out.
Me: Oh, yeah, you’re right. That’s easy. I’ll just look and see what everyone is up to, this afternoon. FUN!
ED: You should respond to that prick and his pro-gun whining, for sure. What an idiot. “Obama is trying to steal my guns… blah, blah, freakin blah.” What a damn charmer. Someone married that asshole. I feel so bad for her. Someone else shared that Kardashian picture AGAIN?! She is a giant toddler with giant boobs and a tiny brain and I want her to go away forever. Aw, look at those pretty engagement photos! Remember how that last guy you dated ended up being such a colossal wang? Ugh, he does look good in that profile pic, though. That baby laughing at that dog is hilarious. Watch that again, that made you feel happy. You know what else makes you happy? YouTube videos of pregnancy announcements. Go check that out. You’re gonna laugh so hard and you’ll completely forget about the pro-gun prick and the giant toddler. You know what? First you should post something about Donald Trump and see if the fundies get their panties twisted up. You need a good reminder of why you don’t hang out with them, anyways.
Me: Oh my God. I’ve been at this for 2 hours. I hate you, Evil Demon. Go away, forever.
ED: You’re supposed to be a yoga instructor. Way be non-reactive and mindful, teach. You’re really crushing it.
Me: Shut up. I hate you. I’m going to get on Instagram to distract myself from how much I hate you.
ED: You realize that means I win, right?
AND IT NEVER ENDS.
Knowing myself means that if I’m going to do all I want to do with the creativity welling up lately, I have to give the Evil Demon less material to work with. For me, that means taking at least a month off Facebook. If I spent half the time in structured productivity that I spend scrolling through bullshit online, I would feel so much more fulfilled and create such better work.
For these reasons and a few others, I’m taking a break from the Book. If you need to get in touch, I’ve posted my email address and will be corresponding that way. You can also call me and we can go to coffee, as I’m a huge fun of actual face to face time.
I’ll almost certainly be back. Hopefully, with lots of new content and material for you guys. Until then, catch me here on the blog or at Ugly Muggs drinking tea and throwing down cronuts like it’s my damn job.
Increasingly, I’m becoming a Both/And person. Before we move any further, let me say I realize this is not a unique situation, and is in fact a perfectly healthy part of becoming a fully realized adult human. I am not special in this regard, and I won’t claim to be. But this is my blog, so I’m writing about about my journey- the metaphor is tired, but it holds. I used to be very much an Either/Or type. My upbringing, for which I am deeply grateful and of which I wouldn’t change a thing, instilled in me a code that categorized decisions into right and wrong, it clearly defined good and evil, and it assured me that making the correct combination of “good” choices would lead me into a safe and happy life. My mother’s voice echoes in my head regularly with this familiar refrain, “Make good choices.” When we’re children, we need this kind of structure. We need to know that touching the hot stove is bad because it hurts us and that sharing our toys is good because it makes our friends happy, and it’s important that people are happy because happy is good and sad is bad. You see? A tiny little human doesn’t have the capacity to weigh the intricacies and nuances of complex ethical decisions, because that part of her brain hasn’t been developed, yet. When we’re little, there are bad guys and good guys. Cops and robbers. Friends and bullies. The world is broken down into a binary system wherein everything is EITHER this OR it is that.
We can’t stay here, though. At some point, we move beyond the binary into the technicolor world where virtually nothing is black and white, like we thought. (Except ice cream for breakfast. Ice cream for breakfast has always been and will always be good.) Richard Rohr, in his excellent book Falling Upwards, refers to the first and second halves of life. In the first, this binary system of ethics is tremendously helpful as we learn to navigate this new world in which we’ve landed. Hot stove? Bad. Ice cream for breakfast? Good. At some point, though, we must deconstruct the infrastructure which has held our worldview together, take a more critical look at our place in humanity, and rebuild in a way that honors the tension of the in between. For some of us this happens early in life. Tragedy can trigger this deconstruction. Divorce. Death. Loss. Grief. Cancer. Some of us are thrust into deconstruction when, in spite of making mostly “good” choices, we’re suddenly confronted with an overwhelmingly “bad” circumstance. It’s the “Why do bad things happen to good people?” dilemma. I know of a family who lost their mother to cancer. This woman had children ranging in ages from 6 years to college and none of them had made any decisions bad enough to merit the loss of their mother. She wasn’t the recipient of some cruel karmic payback. Sometimes, shit just happens. Shit can seriously derail our tidy, binary ways of thinking.
If it’s not tragedy that forces us to face our first half of life and do the work to enter the second, it is often doubt; doubt that the way we’ve always seen the world can possibly be universally right. I grew up in wealthy suburban Dallas, attended private Christian schools my entire life, and never wanted for a thing (In spite of the 16 year old version of myself who thought briefly she deserved a Range Rover… she leaned a little to the bitchy left). My parents sacrificed a lot of personal possibility and opportunity for my brothers and I, because they were in a place in the world where they could and because their love for us is tremendous. I was fortunate to be surrounded by love and structure and community for the first half of my life. The way that I see the world is great… if you’re me. What about the girl who, from the time she can walk, spends hours each day fetching water for a village where she will never have the opportunity to get an education? What about if you’re the boy born into a patriarchal society where women are property and your primary goal in life is to have a son, even if that means killing or abandoning your daughters? What if you’re part of a wealthy family in India? What if you grew up in Apartheid stricken South Africa? What if you’re from the Bronx? What if you grew up in an affluent, atheist community in Prague? What if you lived hundreds of years ago and my concept of the world didn’t even exist yet? I can no longer imagine that what I consider “right” and what I consider “wrong” can be universally true for all of these people. I can already hear my conservative evangelical Christian friends with the, “That’s why we have the Bible, which is inerrant and true for all people across all of time” bit. I love my conservative evangelical Christian friends, but again I’ll say, “That’s great… If you’re us.”
Our understanding of the very book we call The Bible is unique to where we live in the United States, the current global superpower, in the most technologically advanced age in all of human history. The expectation that the word “inerrant” means historically, scientifically, and empirically factual is a very recent demand of the word, itself. Most of Scripture, certainly most of the New Testament in which modern evangelicalism claims to have her roots, was written by religious and political exiles to the underground communities which were heavily persecuted by the superpower of their day. Modern American Evangelicals seem to have far more in common, socio-economically and culturally, with the religious and political superpowers who persecuted and condemned the authors of Scripture than with the recipients of the letters that make up the New Testament. When was the last time you saw someone stoned to death for professing to believe that Christ rose from the dead after the government executed him for treason? When was the last time you witnessed someone dragged naked through the streets and crucified for claiming someone else had more power than the government? Are you inextricably connected to your faith community because without them your bills won’t be paid, your children will go hungry, or your very life would come under threat? This was the context of our early brothers and sisters. I’m not trying to belittle anyone, I’m just saying… perspective matters. Saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ for early Christians meant defying the Roman Empire and risking certain death. For us, it’s a $3 bumper sticker from the local Lifeway bookstore.
It wasn’t until fairly recently in human history- think the European Enlightenment of the late 17th and early 18th centuries with all it’s emphasis on science, reason, and individualism- that we began to demand evidence for the things in which we believe. Until that time history was passed down through communities as narrative, story, even myth. These storytellers weren’t interested in journalistic integrity, because they weren’t journalists. They were imparting tradition, history, and faith through the stories and myths of their people, not answering questions of Who? What? When? Where? and Why?. My favorite teacher (some have used the word heretic, which is hilarious), Rob Bell, has a great analogy that I’ll share with you because it really illuminated this idea for me. You could tell someone the story of September 11th, 2001. You could tell them that 19 extremists hijacked 4 airplanes to carry out suicide attacks on US soil. You could tell them that the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, struck the North Tower of the World Trade Centre at 8:46 am, the second, United Flight 175 struck the South Tower at 9:03 am. You could tell them that another plane struck the Pentagon and a fourth was overtaken by passengers and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. You could give them the timeline and the details of that morning, and you could give an historically accurate account of the facts. You could do all of that and miss the greater narrative: That there are people in the world who hate Americans, want all of us to suffer pain, and will go to great lengths to see this happen. You could list the station names of the firefighters who responded that morning, be completely accurate in those details, and miss the sacred mystery that the human spirit drives us to sacrifice ourselves for the love of others. You could go over the timeline of that morning with evidence to support each data point, and never tell the stories of the families who waited gut-wrenching hours by their phones to hear from loved ones, desperate to know that they were okay. You can have a grasp of the facts of September 11, 2001, and completely miss the way we all felt that day and the weeks that followed, because the words we have for that kind of deep grief, which was spiritual and mysterious and language defying, cannot possibly convey what was happening in our souls. You can talk about that day and neglect to grasp that we are still grieving, that we may never understand.
A modern reader wants to understand the facts. An ancient reader wanted to know the soul of the story. Jesus himself taught in parable. He said the Kingdom of Heaven is like and then he told stories. The stories of the Old Testament have echoes across many major religions and mythologies of human history because the people who first told them were after something deeper than the details of the story. These storytellers wanted to convey something about the human spirit, about the universe, about God, that had little to do with the details of the stories themselves. This is where I am in my deconstruction. I am seeking to read the stories without needing them to fit my context, without subjecting them to the demands of empiricism, without needing them to be literally true. I love this line from Rohr, that “literalism is the lowest form of meaning.” Was there a guy named Adam and a woman named Eve? Maybe, probably not, but maybe. However, if there wasn’t, my faith isn’t going to fall apart because the narrative has depth and meaning beyond the “facts” of the story. It’s true because it’s so much more than literally true.
Many of my traditionally leaning, evangelical friends expect that if the Bible is not literally true then it is not true. Either creation happened in six 24 hour days, or we have to call the “accuracy” of the whole book into question. Either the world was literally flooded and a guy named Noah and his family were the only survivors, or it wasn’t and then the integrity of the whole book goes up in smoke. Eh… More and more I’m removing the burden of historical, empirical accuracy from my understanding of Scripture, and the stories have so much more life and truth bursting from them when I stop forcing them into my limited concept of Truth.
The effects of this kind of thinking have been expansive, to say the least. Yes, I believe in the transformative power, energy, and life of Scripture. I also believe it is a book filled with contradictions and culturally specific codes for behavior that no longer apply, written by people across many generations with varied contexts and worldviews who had no idea their writings would one day become the basis for a world religion. I believe God created the world (although certainly not in 6 literal days- Genesis 1 is poetry and story and myth and still true… much more than literally true), and I also believe the stories told by science about the origins of our universe. Yes, both. (More on that in another blog because of all the words.) I believe Christ is the way and that we are ALL recipients of His grace, whether we recognize it or not. Yes, both. I believe God is involved in the lives of His people, and that He can handle my saying fuck occasionally. I believe I can go on stage and speak honestly in my stand up, or write with candor, about God and my sex life in the same breath because I don’t subscribe to the idea that sex before marriage is inherently “bad” or somehow disappointing to the God who gave me the ability to be smart, mindful, and autonomous with my own vagina. He is present in all of it. I believe my responsibility as a person who wants to act more and more like Jesus is to love people well and live boldly- without shame, and I also feel a great duty to live with integrity because of the young girls who are watching me. Yes, both are true and possible.
Both/And living touches everything. It shines a light on every corner of life, and casts away shadows hidden by the fear generated when we stay in Either/Or living for too long. I’m clumsily finding my way through, here, but I’m doing it. So far? Both/And feels a hell of a more honest, and that’s where I most want to life.
And, we can still eat ice cream for breakfast.
If Inside Out had a character named Loneliness she would looks something like the 1000 pound woman from that awful TLC special, but somehow still she would still have horribly bony, pointy elbows that she’s constantly jamming into your kidneys. She would act moody and unpredictable, lumbering in and taking up all the available real estate right in the center of your brain, right when you’re feeling happy and content and free. Loneliness is especially rude because, although she reminds you of emptiness and void, she takes up so much space. She’s a very real presence constantly reminding you that she’s moved in and she’s not going to vacate the premises until she’s wrecked the place a bit. In spite of this, she’s not inherently cruel. She’s more melancholy than malicious; but, she is huge and moving around when you take up so much space involves some collateral damage. It’s like trying to fit a very large sofa through a very narrow hallway- pictures are probably going to fall and shatter their frames, the walls will most likely get bumped, and the paint will almost certainly scratch. Damage is inevitable, but still the couch must go through the hallway in order to get where it belongs. Loneliness takes a toll even when she’s just passing through.
No one ever invites Loneliness to the party, but she shows up anyways, sometimes. She waits until things really get going, when, to borrow from Pixar, Joy and Sadness and Anger and Disgust and Fear seem to have found just the right balance and everyone’s getting along, and she rolls up in her used, slime colored Toyota Prius (because for all her size, she’s one sneaky, silent bitch) and parks right in the middle of the festivities. Everyone at the party has enough room to move about and laugh and mingle comfortably until Loneliness pulls up and settles in with her vacuous melancholy, poking and prodding her way to the center of the room. She crowds everyone else out. It doesn’t take long to realize she’s brought nothing with her. She showed up empty handed, because she’s also a freeloading asshole. It’s not long before Sadness reluctantly offers her a drink, because Sadness is a sucker and always feels like she has to keep Loneliness company when she comes around. Everyone else at the party fades into the background when Loneliness shows up; not because they want to, but because there’s no room for them at the moment. They’re good sports so they hang around and awkwardly wait for Loneliness to get bored and go home so they can get back to the bonfires and laughter, but they’re quiet while she’s around. There’s not much to say, because Loneliness, as you can imagine, isn’t the greatest conversationalist. She doesn’t have a lot to offer, she simply shows up to suck the energy out of the place for a while and then go crash someone else’s party.
That’s the deal with Loneliness. She’s incredibly disloyal. She shows up and takes up space and demands attention she has no intent to share or return, but she’s just as quick to abandon ship and crash a party down the street. Don’t expect to hear about that, though. No one really talks about the times she comes around, we just bear it until she leaves and we can go back to business as usual. We are often secretly distracted by the enormous presence of her yet we never let on she’s even entered the building, let alone that her poop green Prius sits idling in the middle of the living room. We go on pretending that Happiness or Anger or any of the other more socially acceptable emotions are running things, and hope no one notices that Loneliness is actually very much in charge. We post pictures of our perfect lives on Instagram, and when people ask us how we’re doing our voices raise an octave and we offer a cheery, “Great! So, so good!”, and we hashtag how blessed we are and how good God is but, secretly, we’re waiting. We’re waiting for her to get bored and move on to her next stop so we can say something we really mean, again, without the well intended but often condescending, “You should…”, “Why don’t you…”, and “But you seem so…” platitudes that often get tossed about when someone actually admits that Loneliness dropped by, again.
We cope. We pay close attention when Joy speaks up if Loneliness is in the room, because we really do want to hear what Joy has to say. We like her. We prefer her. She sounds like Amy Poehler, which reminds us of all the times we’ve laughed until we cried and boldly said whatever was on our minds. We really like Joy, but sometimes the silence of Loneliness feels louder and heavier than anything else and it takes a while to hear things normally again. It’s like trying to listen underwater: You’re really not going to hear the words clearly until your ears clear the surface.
If Loneliness is currently crashing your party, I think the most helpful thing I can say here is, “Mine, too.” That’s about the scariest thing to admit, but if this blog has taught me anything it’s that saying the scary thing out loud (or typing it) makes it not so scary, anymore. When you shine a light in a dark room, more often than not, you’ll see there are other people in the room with you. And that, my friends, is how you get Loneliness to leave. Turn the light on her. She hates it. She wants to be the center of attention, and that can only happen when we’re unaware of just how not alone we are. She wants us to wait in the dark, afraid to move for fear of bumping into her and risking a bony elbow to the kidney. She knows that we when shine the light on her, we’ll see that Joy and all her friends never actually left, they’ve just been hidden in the shadows for a while.
Get rid of the shadows. Turn on the light. We’re waiting for you!