Suicide is Selfish, But Also it Isn’t

Ten years ago, I was planning my suicide and it’s sort of amazing to me that I can no longer remember why I was depressed. I realize, of course, that depression doesn’t require a reason – in fact, any narrative we give to it is a post hoc rationalization, like some primitive person blaming himself for the snows of winter. I guess it would be more accurate to say that I don’t remember the story I constructed to make sense of my feelings. Did I convince myself of the hopelessness of living by being a college dropout? Did I perceive an historic, all-consuming romantic rejection? Even though the story was a lie, it bothers me to not be able to remember it, if for no other reason than because killing myself was the next act in that story. Chapter 5: He retrieves the Remington shells from the tattered box, the appropriately blood-red folded tubes with the copper end caps, from the ceiling shelf above the dusty lathe. He prays, “Please don’t let my grandma find my body. Please.”

These days, in the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic and surprising self-asphyxiation, I’ve grown weary of the simplifications about depression and suicide coming from all around me. “Suicide is selfish: think of all the people he’s leaving behind, grieving, having to clean up his mess and pay off his debts.” Katie Hurley, writing for the Huffington Post, has a harsh rebuke for that line of thinking. “People who say that suicide is selfish always reference the survivors,” she notes. “It’s selfish to leave children, spouses and other family members behind, so they say. They’re not thinking about the survivors, or so they would have us believe. What they don’t know is that those very loved ones are the reason many people hang on for just one more day. They do think about the survivors, probably up until the very last moment in many cases.”

That’s a fair point, but then Hurley swings too far in the other direction. “Suicide is a lot of things, but selfish isn’t one of them.” She continues, “Suicide is a decision made out of desperation, hopelessness, isolation and loneliness. The black hole that is clinical depression is all-consuming. Feeling like a burden to loved ones, feeling like there is no way out, feeling trapped and feeling isolated are all common among people who suffer from depression.”

Every year in the United States, 30,000 people kill themselves. Take any population of 30,000 people, one that extends over every age, race, socioeconomic class, religion, and sexual orientation, and you have a group that will likewise span the selfishness/selflessness spectrum. Out of that many self-killings, I can guarantee you statistically that a significant percentage of them end their lives for selfish reasons. I can also guarantee you that another significant percentage honestly, whole-heartedly believe that their families, friends, and the world at large would be better off without them.

Suicide is not a one-size-fits-all problem. It is not monolithic. (And it may come as a surprise that not everyone who commits suicide is depressed, at least by the clinical definition. Compare it to murder: not all murderers are sociopaths, even though many are.) The gamut of motives runs far and wide. It can be a way to escape intense, chronic physical pain. It can be a momentary, impulsive reaction to intense grief, or financial loss, or bullying. It can be a political statement against oppression, like the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc. Suicides occur as acts of religious faith. They can even be the result of what is known as the Werther Effect: a highly-publicized suicide will produce many copycat suicides (and, incidentally, one-car traffic accidents).

Selfishness and selflessness can play a simultaneous role, or they can play no role at all. It is thought that victims of suicide leave a note only 25% of the time. Even in those times, how much can we really trust that person to understand their motivations? We can’t even trust ourselves to know why we buy certain brands of mustard.

We want to simplify and categorize these things. Then we can pretend that what amounts epidemic is actually a small problem with a neat and easy solution. It is overwhelming to acknowledge that there are myriad root causes at work. We want a miracle cure, like with cancer. But, as with cancer, we cannot make any real progress towards a cure without first acknowledging that there are many forms: some with discrete and unrelated causes, others with a surprising amount of overlap yet still unique to itself. To sit back and judge someone for being selfish – or to absolve them by suggesting that selfishness played no role at all – is, if you’ll permit me to mix metaphors, arguing about the interior decorating of a home engulfed in flames.

I had picked a night to kill myself. My grandparents were away from home that night, so I wouldn’t have any interruptions …or startle them with the gunshot. That night, I was coming home late from work, driving north on Highway 61. The radio was off. I was driving the speed limit. As I approached Country Road C, I had the impulse to turn right and drive by my church, Maplewood Evangelical Free. “If no one’s there, I will go home and do this.”

I took the left down Hazlewood and turned into the parking lot. There was a single light on. I approached the door and found it locked, so I picked up a handful of gravel and walked to the window and started throwing stones at it, each making a high-pitched thwack as it bounced off the glass. It took six or seven hits until someone came out. It was the college-group pastor, a shorter man in his early thirties with a military haircut and a perpetual smile on his face. He recognized me. “You look like you need someone to talk to.” It was an answered prayer: Your grandma won’t find your body. You will outlive her.

Williams

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To Embrace our Amazing Privilege

W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most important civil-rights activists of the first half of the 20th century. He is best known as one of the co-founders of the NAACP. He was also the first black person to earn a doctorate from Harvard University, a feat he accomplished in 1895. Du Bois’ ethos emphasized the value of hard work. In addition to his activism, he was a professor of economics and history at Atlanta University as well as a poet, playwright, and a novelist. He deeply admired Stalin, describing him as “simple, calm, and courageous.” Du Bois was bald, slight of build, and sported an impressive, expansive mustache for much of his adult life.

In 1914, Du Bois sent his teenage daughter Yolande to the Bedales School, a co-ed British boarding school. Bedales is in the village of Steep in Hampshire. It was designed for 150 students and its early curriculum featured modern languages, science, design, gardening and drama. From its inception it was one of the most expensive boarding schools in England and also one of the most exclusive. Du Bois wrote a letter to Yolande, as fathers do, to offer some encouragement, life advice, and how to deal with people reacting to her race. “You will meet, of course, curious little annoyances,” he said. “People will wonder at your dear brown and the sweet crinkley hair. But that simply is of no importance and will soon be forgotten. Remember that most folk laugh at anything unusual, whether it is beautiful, fine or not.”

Beyond the “curious little annoyances,” though, Du Bois wanted to underscore a deeper point. “Above all remember, dear, that you have a great opportunity. You are in one of the world’s best schools, in one of the world’s greatest modern empires. Millions of boys and girls all over this world would give almost anything they possess to be where you are. You are there by no desert or merit of yours, but only by lucky chance.” Yolande was being afforded an incredible privilege; her father wanted her to see that privilege for what it was – an unmerited gift of chance – and to therefore enable her to embrace rather than squander that opportunity.

He continued: “Deserve it, then.”

It would be easy enough to brush off this letter as the hope of a father for his daughter to get the most of her education, and it certainly is that. But the deeper instruction has been resonating with me since I first read that letter, a low hum constantly at the base of my skull. Here we are, in America. We possess unfathomable technology. Every tap and faucet has clean, drinkable water. Food is plentiful and cheap. At my fingertips, as I type this sentence, I have access to the sum of the world’s knowledge. I can learn about anything I want, at any time of the day. When I stand up and walk around, I carry that access in my pocket. What an amazing privilege.

Millions of boys and girls and men and women all over this world – and throughout the expanse of time – would give almost anything they possess to be where I am. And I am here by no merit of mine, but only by lucky chance.

“Deserve it, then.”

Are we living in a way that acknowledges the incredible gifts and advantages we have simply to be here? Or are we living in a way that presumes that the world owes us these rewards simply because we’re alive? Are we cultivating gratitude or entitlement? We can’t tell anyone else what to do, but we can take it upon ourselves to earn this great blessing, to say, “I may not have done anything to earn this, but I am going to live in such a way that this gift is not squandered on me.”

“Deserve it, then.”

At the end of “Saving Private Ryan,” a dying Captain Miller tells James Ryan, “Earn this.” Earn the sacrifice of the five men who died to save yours. Earn their blood and the grief of their families. Ryan doesn’t know how. Fifty years later, he says to Miller’s tombstone, “Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.” We may not have anyone who lost their life to preserve ours. But we can live our lives in a state of constant appreciation, a tireless effort to enjoy and embrace our gift of chance. Not as an obligation, as a child guilted into eating her vegetables; rather, as an opportunity only possible through the sacrifice of someone else and the roll of a die.

Du Bois finished his letter by saying, “The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin — the ability to do, the will to conquer, the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world. Don’t shrink from new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely. Enter into the spirit of your big bedroom. Enjoy what is and not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul. Above all remember: your father loves you and believes in you and expects you to be a wonderful woman.”

DuBois

Which Part of Me is You?

“A toothache is not necessarily diminished by our knowledge of its causes.”
– T.S. Eliot

Last week, I was flipping through a copy of Psychology Today. One article caught my attention. The author was describing signs of healthy relationships. For example, in healthy relationships, partners support each other’s opportunities for growth, or they frequently touch each other in non-sexual ways. They share their emotions. These all seem like valuable facets of any romantic relationship, but the one that stood out was the first one: “People in thriving relationships take on each other’s habits, interests, and mannerisms.” They become more like one another. And while the author was talking about this in the context of romantic relationships, I thought of the myriad ways I’ve seen this happen to me with friends and family also.

I thought of how I was never much more than a Caribou Coffee drinker until my friend Alli told me about a new shop with a lot of buzz called Kopplin’s. It was that time of Spring where it’s still cold enough that you wear a coat but warm enough that you insist on having it unzipped. I ventured down Hamline with three friends – Kirby, Cassie, and Amy – and though we were in the right place, we couldn’t find it. We looped the block several times, but it was hidden between a burger joint and a bowling alley. (We ended up driving over to the Spyhouse instead.) Eventually I made it down there and it’s been my favorite ever since.

I thought of how I wouldn’t be a  whiskey drinker if it wasn’t for Taylor sizing me up and saying, “I’m guessing you’re a whiskey guy.”

“I guess so,” I think I said.

I would never have been a runner if Carica hadn’t asked me to train for a 5k with her so she could get back into shape after her pregnancy. I took up table tennis because Ashley beat me in a game during her orientation weekend at Northwestern, and in my (sexist) embarrassment I trained with Jared as often as I could until I got good at the game. By then I enjoyed it too much to stop.

One afternoon during my freshman year at Northwestern, a girl named Lauren challenged me to a race. We walked to the back parking lot the students called Purgatory since it had a clear straightaway. It was early October but the weather was warm: leaves had only slowly started accumulating along the curbs. Afterwards, we walked towards the dining hall to find a group of people playing Ultimate Frisbee so we joined in and played terribly. Frisbee has been a part of my life ever since.

I could go on. I never took cooking very seriously until Beka bragged about her family meals to me and started sharing recipes. That passion took another step forward when I discovered how the process of cooking and sharing a meal with someone can be connecting, encouraging, and in some ways healing. I learned that from Leigh. Psychology meant little to me until Keuning’s enthusiasm spilled over during Social Psychology. That probably would have dried up like a raisin if not for Joel and our endless conversations about the mind and motivations. I’m still not sure we’ve ever agreed on any of it.

We too often think of giving of ourselves as a physical metaphor, a zero-sum game. If I give to you, I no longer have it for myself. And in some ways that’s true. But clearly giving in this case is more like tipping a flame into an unlit candle. (I suddenly realize I am borrowing that image from William Penn, who puts it far better than I: “Such a disposition is like lighting another man’s candle by one’s own, which loses none of its brilliancy by what the other gains.”) Or maybe it’s like a needle and thread, passing through different pieces of fabric and binding them together. Who knows how far that thread stretches beyond me. It may be a little bit sentimental, but it’s certainly fun to think about.

Out of Bondage and into Exile

If I think of the times or places where I feel comfortable in my own skin, where I feel like I belong exactly where I am, what springs readily to mind are games of Ultimate Frisbee. As I think about it, I can almost feel the roughness of the nicks and grooves on the lip of the disc from where it has skidded across asphalt after an errant throw. The chaotic crissing and crossing of my teammates trying to run away from their coverage, the premonition that a throwing lane will be open in a half a second but swallowed up again two tenths of a second later. The billions of blades of grass brushing their muddy pomade into the grooves of my feet. It’s calming but invigorating blend of forethought and intuition, competition and cooperation, somehow both fundamentally lighthearted yet brutally serious.

Virtually everywhere else, though, there’s a discomfort and a disconnect. Perhaps some of that stems from being older than most of my friends but younger than most of my coworkers. Maybe part of it is developing interests that few of my current friends have, and not finding friends among those who currently share those interests. Perhaps it’s the utter scarcity of feeling simultaneously welcome and appreciated. I’m not sure. But when you get told you’re different often enough it stops feeling like a compliment.

I spent much of Memorial Day wandering alone by the Mississippi riverfront. It was a beautiful day for it. I came upon a set of adjacent condos which shared a courtyard. Pink and lavender petals of a purpleleaf sand cherry tree were scattered about, shifting in the wind but not going far. There was an empty row of benches – criminally empty, but rife with potential. The French actress Jeanne Moreau once said, “To go out with the setting sun on an empty beach is to truly embrace your solitude.” I wonder if to sit alone on a picturesque bench is to accept solitude while acknowledging the possibility of something else.

Bus Stories 2

On Easter Sunday, conversation with my family turned to my many bus stories. My aunt suggested that these things probably happen all the time but few people notice them. “I bet often you were the only person aware of what was happening,” she quipped. We discussed why that might be. Do I have an innate skill to perceive simmering conflict about to bubble over? Perhaps – I have studied face reading, nonverbal emotional expression, body language, and psychology in some depth. But maybe that’s only a small part of it. Maybe I notice these things because I feel irrevocably set apart from what’s going on around me. I feel out of place, and that offers a heightened awareness as a small consolation.

Bus Stories

Jawaharlal Nehri was India’s first Prime Minister, occasionally described as the “architect of the modern Indian nation.” He grew up the son of a wealthy attorney and as a result was sent to England to study, first at Trinity College and later at Cambridge. When he returned to India, he met and befriended Mahatma Gandhi, who later became his mentor. But his role in Indian independence and his leadership of that nation did not make him feel part of it.  “I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West,” he said, “out of place everywhere, at home nowhere.” The philosopher Gerald Arbuckle compared Nehru’s feelings to those of migrant children: accused of abandoning their heritage, never feeling accepted by their new society. “I am a stranger and alien in the West. I cannot be of it,” Nehri lamented. “But in my own country also, sometimes I have an exile’s feeling.”

The curse of the exiled is to long to be someplace where you feel loved, only to find that it no longer exists. It is to wish for that place where you are embraced with welcome and appreciation. In an early episode of Mad Men, Don Draper is discussing the idea of utopia with Rachel Menken. She says, “They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia.’ The Greeks had two meanings for it: ‘eu-topos,’ meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos,’ meaning the place that cannot be.” The exile is left to wonder if he can ever find home again, or if home has become that good place that cannot be. Thinking back to Memorial Day, a friend asked I wanted to come celebrate. I turned down the offer: “Sometimes it feels less lonely to be alone.”

Giving Up

Staring at the bottom of your glass
Hoping one day you’ll make a dream last
But dreams come slow and they go so fast

– Passenger

We live in a society that seems to especially loathe quitters. We may not place them at the same level as, say, racists or pedophiles, but we hold the same general contempt for quitters as we do for bad drivers, oil tycoons, or folk musicians. It’s ingrained in the advice we give each other, the inherent ethic of achievement in our nation. How many versions of the phrase, “There is no failure except in no longer trying” can you think up? I know Elbert Hubbard, Chris Bradford, and Bruce Lee all composed variations on that theme. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn has a more flowery rendition: “The worst thing one can do is not to try, to be aware of what one wants and not give in to it, to spend years in silent hurt wondering if something could have materialized – never knowing.” From Norman Vincent Peale urging us to believe that it’s always too soon to quit, to Fannie Flagg telling us to never give up before the miracle comes, or Emma Goldman asking us to believe that our ability to dream is all that keeps us alive, the gospel of unflinching optimism is woven into the fabric of our collective attitude.

But this begs questions in my mind. What about the dreams of people who can never achieve their goals? The would-be dancer with balance so bad she makes a Jenga tower look stable. The man with a heart for healing but no stomach for bodily fluids. We’ve all seen enough episodes of American Idol to know there are some people who should – must – take a long, serious look at whether they can achieve what they hope to achieve. And the obvious examples aren’t the most difficult to deal with. What about the people who get close enough to a dream they can smell its musk, but never quite close enough to apprehend it? There are writers who have written books that will never get published, and there are published books that will never sell. There are professional football players who will never make an active roster, or play in an actual game, much less drive their team for the Super Bowl winning touchdown. Is it quitting on yourself to make subtle edits to your fantasies?

That doesn’t even touch on those tortured souls who have all hope beaten from them like a slave driver whipping a runaway. Some actors can’t take the devastation of another failed audition. Some hearts can’t survive further breaking.

I guess I’m wondering, is hope alone sufficient? Is it a failure to let go of an unattainable dream if we find a new dream? Does it matter what vessel we use to store our hope so long as we keep it near and pour it into another once it cracks?

There’s a great exchange in the film State & Main where a writer, Joseph Turner White, is in search of a typewriter. “I can only write on manual,” he says.
His director shrugs him off, “I know the feeling.”
“That’s a lie. You know, that’s a real fault.”
“It’s not lying,” the director says. “It’s a gift for fiction.”

We have an incredible ability to spin our narratives to maintain a narcissistic belief in our heroism and achievement. “It wasn’t giving up. It was opening a door for a new dream.” Or something to that effect. (Perhaps one of my various PR savvy friends could suggest a better spin.) Now I’m not suggesting that we should give up on fresh perspectives or looking at things in a new light. I’m saying that we know well enough when we are lying, and that honesty ought to be a higher value than not giving up, not quitting. Maybe quitting is not the same thing as defeat. As the novelist Mark Halperin puts it, “What happens when you let go, when your strength leaves you and you sink into darkness, when there’s nothing that you or anyone else can do, no matter how desperate you are, no matter how you try? Perhaps it’s then, when you have neither pride nor power, that you are saved, brought to an unimaginably great reward.” Maybe, just maybe, we ought to live in the space between the understanding that we cannot accomplish anything without believing, and that there may come a time to let go, and if we must let go we can do so without regret or shame. As the great philosopher Beyonce said, “Thank God I found the good in goodbye.”

Beyonce

What I Would Tell My Daughter About Modesty

“And so biblical modesty isn’t about managing the sexual impulses of other people; it’s about cultivating humility, propriety and deference within ourselves.”
Rachel Held Evans

Of all the things we use to make snap judgments about people, there are fewer things more powerful and efficient than mode of dress. What you choose to wear will say loads about your personality and interests – from the bands you love to the athletes you root for, the places you’ve been and the subcultures you want to affiliate with, even to what level you conform to social expectations. Thoughtful adornment can make an average-looking person radiant, while sloppy dressing can make even a gorgeous person frumpy. What you wear and how you wear it will be an amazing tool by which you can showcase your strengths and personality.

There will be many people who will want to dictate to you how you should dress. Don’t listen to them. As you decide what to wear, consider these two questions: 1) Are you wearing that in order to titillate or excite? and 2) Will your apparel fuel your pride or vanity, or will it call attention to your goodness and beauty? There will always be men who will look at you and choose to objectify you. The lustful gaze will never go away in this fallen world. So long as you aren’t consciously attempting to provoke it – or take advantage of it – then use your best judgment. There can be no hard and fast rules about what to wear. So much depends on context and culture, specific moments in time in specific places in the world.

All that is to say, let what you wear showcase your character, your goodness, your virtue, and honor. Modesty is not so much related to lust or sexuality as it is to communication. What we wear is the first thing we say to someone who sees us. I hope you agree with me that we should not say things in order to provoke a negative emotion in someone else, but instead we have a calling to use our speech to edify and encourage: to give blessings rather than curses. Then so it is with what you wear. Communicate with your clothing a message you would be honored to speak to a crowd of strangers. That’s what you’re doing already, so take ownership of it.

Also, no Zubaz. Those are ridiculous.

What Milk Duds teach us about Sex

“Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues.”
— C.S. Lewis

At this very moment, I have an intense craving for some Milk Duds. The soft, chewy caramel wrapped in a luxurious, sweet milk chocolate? It haunts my dreams. All day long, my tongue says to my jaw, “Look at you, being lazy. You could be masticating Milk Duds til you’re sore. It’s basically exercise, you know.”
Whoever decided to introduce a 10 oz. package should be locked in San Quentin.
But I’m not snacking on Milk Duds. I’m not snacking on anything at the moment. I, like most of you, can recognize that I don’t need to indulge my every craving. More than that, doing so would be unhealthy for my body and also diminish my future enjoyment of those succulent morsels.
SONY DSC
I think we need to take this logic just a little bit further. We are buying into a myth about sex and sexuality: any sexual urge that we don’t indulge gets labeled “repression,” and we’re told it leads to very bad things. But if we can understand our sexual appetite the same way we understand our culinary appetite, I think we can see very quickly that there is a difference between healthy urges and unhealthy urges, and there’s a line to draw between sexual indulgences that benefit us and those that do not.
If you guys are anything like me, very rarely do you crave the things that are healthy for you. I’m not sitting at my work desk thinking, “Damn, I need some carrots like right now.” If we’re looking for health, maybe the type and intensity of our cravings better measures what we should avoid rather than what we should embrace. I say this in relative ignorance, and also possibly stretching my analogy too far. But I hope we can all agree that not all urges need to be indulged, and health always requires sacrifice.
So no matter what metric you use to determine what constitutes healthy sexuality, embrace it. Hold it up against your cravings and decide whether that indulgence will benefit you, or whether it will leave you with the psycho-sexual equivalent of obesity.

Apologetic: A letter to atheists

I am glad the world observes us. It has a right to do so. If a man says, “I am God’s,” he sets himself up for public observation. Ye are lights in the world, and what are lights intended for but to be looked at? A city set on a hill cannot be hid.”
– Charles Spurgeon

Dear Atheists,
I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. I’m friends with many of you on Facebook, and I follow Ricky Gervais and Richard Dawkins on Twitter. (What is it with Ricks?) Many of you seem to talk and think about religion more than I do. I find that bizarre in one sense: Ricky Gervais is fond of using Santa Claus as a stand-in for God, and I doubt he spends much time thinking about Santa. But on the other hand, you live in a world that has a lot of hostility towards your point of view, and so I can see why it’s so often on your mind.
What I’ve been thinking about is how much of a failure I’ve been to you. Christians all around the world – but especially in America – are gaining a reputation for being shrill, bigoted, close-minded, and ignorant people. And I have no doubt that in some ways I’ve encouraged that view in your minds. I am supposed to be shining a light in your life, but instead I am throwing mud in your face. That is such a shameful reflection on my Savior.
(Yes, I know, you don’t believe in Him. That’s not the important part. The important part is I do, and I want my life to point to Him. When my actions are shrill, bigoted, close-minded, and ignorant, I am holding a sign towards something else entirely and implying that’s Jesus.)
I often come across as arrogant, as though what I believe should automatically be what you believe. I often forget just how foolish and idiotic seems from the outside to believe any of this. Perhaps sometimes I am judgmental or shaming. I need to remember that your beliefs come from just as deep a conviction as mine, and it’s quite likely that yours have been more severely tested than my own. Sometimes I am tempted to think that you live your life apart from any ethic or morality, but I only need to briefly read some of your posts to see just how much better you are at conforming your actions to your beliefs than I am to mine.
Before you think I am pandering to you, let me say that I am not about to compromise what I believe. Our worldviews are at odds, and that will lead to conflict. I will not back down in my belief that you are a person with a curable illness and that I know a Great Physician. And I don’t expect you to back down in your belief that this is an utterly laughable notion. But the purpose of writing this is to say that if we are enemies, then my call is to serve you. If you have a need, let me help you meet it. The only condition is that you understand I am motivated to do so because I want to love God more than anything else, and I want to love you as much as I love myself. I couldn’t care less if you think I’m cool, but I can’t abide it if you think I’m not loving. Anything less is a failure.
Spurgeon_caricature
There is one thing you can do for me: if I step out of line, don’t hold back. Let me know. If you see me doing something and think, “That’s not what a Christian’s supposed to do!” Tell me. There are two outcomes: I can show you that your understanding of Christianity was at least partially flawed, or you’ll have helped me improve. In an old sermon by the great 19th century British preacher Charles Spurgeon, he relayed an anecdote from a fellow clergyman, about an atheist who attended his church.

(A)fter having annoyed a church a long time, he was about to leave, and therefore, as a parting jest with the minister, he said, “I have no doubt you will be very glad to know that I am going a hundred miles away?” “No,” said the pastor, “I shall be sorry to lose you.” “How? I never did you any good.” “I don’t know that, for I am sure that never one of my flock put half a foot through the hedge but what you began to yelp at him, and so you have been a famous sheep-dog for me.

I know I’m a hypocrite at times. You’ll be doing a great favor by pointing out when you notice.
Thank you for reading. I hope you can help me walk better.
Steve
P.S. I think I’m done with this letter-writing format. But it has served me well a couple times. All right.

When Sorrow Comes

“Jesus build a ship, let us sing a song. Let the spirit on face of the water be the wind in the sail that carries us home.”

  – Ben Kyle

I find it extremely difficult to write when I’m happy. I don’t know if that’s just how writer’s block works, or if I’ve bought into some myth about pain and tragedy being the fountainhead of creativity. Whatever the case, I have been utterly ebullient for the last month, and it has kept me from writing. Why turn my focus and energy inward when there’s this whole world at which I can smile? I feel like I did when I got my first guitar.

I can say this for certain: this too shall pass. The circumstances of life will change. Maybe my social group will splinter. Maybe – God forbid – some controversy will fracture my church. Maybe my gratefulness to be working will subside and I’ll find I hate my job. Perhaps the creeping blackness of depression will find a roadmap back to my heart again. Will I be ebullient, still?

And now, O Lord, for what do I wait?
My hope is in You. (Psalm 39:7)

I am called to praise my Maker no matter how I am made, or what purpose You set me to. If I despair losing my blessings, that just reveals I was not grateful for them in the first place. If I am ungrateful, open wide my door! Take my idols away! Do whatever makes me love You more. Give me every confidence that my hope is in You, and not the storehouses of my friends, my health, or my job. Amen.

Reversals

“Everybody has reversals. If you were never down, how would you know when you were up?”
— Anne (State & Main)

There is a girl who used to board the 16 with me, Monday through Friday, at 8:30. She has straight black hair and big almond eyes. She wears black Chucks and has a skull patch on her backpack. I always got the idea she was Greek, though I am so bad at picking out ethnicities I thought my friend Joel (a Filipino) was Mexican the first time we met. She got off at the stop outside the Allina Clinic, so I had assumed she must have worked there in some capacity. When I stopped working in Dinkytown, I stopped seeing her and thinking about her altogether. Then I started riding the 84 north in the mornings, and there she is, boarding with me on an entirely different stop with an entirely different destination.
We have never spoken, and I don’t imagine we ever will. But she is like any number of other small coincidences you, I, we encounter on a day-to-day basis. The middle aged bearded man – he looks to be the model of conservatism if you ignore the worn brown leather jacket and the oddly large hoop earring – with whom I used to ride the 21 in the mid-afternoon but now see on the 61. Even the bitter, aggressive driver of the 63: he used to cuss out riders for their rudeness and demand they get off his bus. He would park between stops and idle until they acquiesced. Now he drives the 50. I imagine backstories and trajectories in all of their lives: some of them ascending, others tumbling. I also imagine I couldn’t be farther from the truth in any case.
The last few weeks at Hope we’ve been talking about reversals of fortune. I think, though, that we need to bear in mind that not every reversal is on the scale of the Jews in Esther or the disciples of the Gospel. Have you ever gone from clothes-rending despair to life-changing elation in the course of 48 hours? (I suspect there are some out there that could claim the opposite, and that’s fair: it’s much easier to tear down than to build up.) No, most of our reversals are on a much smaller scale. A job change that gives us better opportunities down the road …or a raise that keeps us from moving onto a better track. A rebuff from a paramour that opens our eyes to see a better fit with someone else. The biggest turning points of our lives may be something so small that we don’t notice it at the time, and might even be hard to pinpoint in retrospect.
I guess the not-so-subtle super-saccharine point of all that is this: your life might be changing right before your eyes. Pay attention, and thank God just the same. None of us are exactly where we want to be, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going somewhere.