Friday, December 19, 2014

Hello, Unexpected, My Old Friend

There is only one kind of shock worse than the totally unexpected: the expected for which one has refused to prepare. 
-Mary Renault, The Charioteer

ZACCARIAS WAS in settled, comfortable place when he was suddenly faced with the unexpected (1).

What do we do when the unexpected storms into our lives? Here are a few things that have helped me.

1. Don’t Over-Think It
I try not to over-think or over-interpret what has happened [wife laughs]. Sometimes this fast-forward thinking is why God brings the unexpected in the first place. We are walking, consumed  in the dark fog in our thoughts: “He said that; she said that; he did that," over and over and we fuel our thoughts and they get worse and worse and worse. Then, “Pop!” the unexpected comes in as, seemingly, the only way to pry us out.

2. Replace Fear with Gratitude
Replace fear and insecurity with confidence and gratitude for all the life experience that God has given me. Sometimes, when the unexpected scares us, the fear is the result of deep insecurities we faced at the beginning of a relationship or a career. This may be a certain type of project at work, one you immediately react to with fear, anxiety and insecurity.

Certain things, strangely, scare us no matter how many times we face them and come through successfully. 

The epistle says “Give thanks in all circumstances”(2). When we fail to thank God in all the million little successes, we fail to acknowledge the growth in our abilities. So, unexpected events, encounters, or challenges are scarier than they should be.

Kevin, surprised by the expected.
3. Was it Really Unexpected?
Also, one might ask herself, "If I really look back on my life, and the way things have been going: Was this event really unexpected? Did I do things to bring the unexpected and unwelcome event into my life, even in a small way? Did I contribute to the slow deterioration of a relationship that is now on the brink? Am I contributing to the slow ruin of something good that I/we had? Is it possible that God is really sending me this warning signal to highlight something that maybe shouldn't be so unexpected?

4. Clinging 
Is it also possible that the unexpected is so troubling because I cling to the story of my life, as I've written it? Every event that does not correspond to that narrative is a source of pain. Jeff Edmonds writes,
This is the disadvantage of memory: it imposes a burden upon you. It makes you draw an arrow. We remember, for example, being young and powerful and we dream of returning to that state. But is this an arrow that is possible to draw? Or is it simply melancholic nostalgia for a past that cannot be recreated. If the past is too powerful, too good, it can make us reject the future and create a melancholic temperament that mourns the loss of that idyllic past (3). 
5. Offer the Anxiety
Another thing we can is to offer our fright to God, to stand before Him, pull the anxiety out from our heart and place it front of Him, saying "Here it is: I am panicking!" See what insight you might receive in that quiet quiet time. Insight can be a very comforting thing. And God can I give us that insight if we stop, slow down and take both feet out from the normal river of stimulation. 

6. Pulled from the Cocoon
Sometimes we are locked in a cocoon of self-centered behavior and self centered looking and God wants to pull us out. Think of the very subtle difference between Zaccarias' and Mary's responses to Gabriel. Because, you know, both of them express a sort of a questioning, an astonishment. But there was a very subtle, and yet key,difference: Mary says “How shall this be?” But, Zaccarias says “How shall I know this?” Mary was focused on the miracle in her life. Zaccarias was focused on the “I.” The big "I" was at the center of his question, the center of his problems, and the center of his thinking.

7. Ever-Weakening Waves
By continually facing us with the unexpected, like waves that seem to keep hitting us hard, eventually God succeeds in teaching us that the idea is to change and strengthen the inside and not worry so much about controlling outside events. As Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.”(4) Eventually, if we are wise, we become stronger and stronger and the waves become smaller and weaker, or at least that's how they seem, because we are grounded in God.

(1) I was invited to give a homily on last Sunday's reading from the Coptic Lectionary (Luke 1:1-25). This is the gist.
(2) 1 Thes. 5:18
(3) Drawing the Arrow, Some Reflections on our Historicity
(4) Luke 17:21

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Monsters in Mind

"I have observed many men in the world assailed by anxiety, by worry, by the need to talk...and I have seen them run away from the madness of their bodies.” 
-St. John Climacus (1)

As a kid, I'd  stay up late at night reading murder mystery novels, typically an Agatha Christie my mom had given me for Christmas. As I'd switch off the light, I'd have an irrational discomfort that the killer was lurking outside my room. (Was Jane Wilkinson just around the corner? In the room across from mine?).

Some 25 years later, am I so much different? How often, as I lie in bed, do phantom fears bounce off the inner walls of my chest?

A friend described anticipated conversations with her boss: "I'll hand her the report. She'll make this comment in that tone. I'll say this, then I bet she will say this..." Back, forth, back forth. By the end, she'd find herself, alone in her car, utterly furious at a conversation that she never ended up having.

In my experience, people are far less monstrous in person than in my imagination. Real people are often much more humane and reasonable -- "softer," if you will -- in person than they are in imagined future conversations or exaggerated past interactions. Future events (a confrontation, an unfair criticism, an over-your-head work assignment), if they ever face us at all, are usually much more horrific and intolerable in our imagination than they are in reality.

Runners who regularly experience pre-race insomnia know just what I mean ("I'm racing 26.2 miles in 7 hours!"..."How fast per mile?"... "26, for real?"... "Less than 7 hours now."). The thoughts escalate, then the heart pounds faster. This escalates the thoughts, which spurs on the pounding, which further escalates the thoughts... 

Then, you wake up (if you slept at all), lace up, the gun goes off, you run, you finish. Nothing to it.

If the "monster" events, people and interactions are imagined, who is the real monster? I'd say it's the little, often repetitive, internal voice cooking up future scenarios: 
  • "My 12 year old said this, so she will end up saying that, then doing this, and end up like that as an adult. OMG, OMG, OMG."
  • "I am going to have to figure out [insert: vague, imagined project at work], and I won't know what to do, then so and so will be angry and complain to so and so, and then I will be in trouble. Then I will..."
  • "My husband probably didn't do what I asked. I am going to be so annoyed. Then, he will give me that same excuse. He is going to try and turn it on me by saying that. Ugh!"
In C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, a senior demon, advising a junior demon, writes: 
We want a man hag-ridden by the Future -- haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth -- ready to break the [God's] commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other—dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. 
We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present (2).
In an age of texts, emails, messaging, and posting, so much is lost, laundered, twisted and misconstrued, making the following quite relevant "Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full."(3) 

It seems to me that we should never, ever deal with a charged, or potentially charged, situation through such means. If at all possible, I'd not even do it over the phone. Meet the other, face-to-face (yes, eye contact and everything). Take in the person's presence, her humanity, her vulnerability. See for yourself that she is just a person, of the same nature, with the same basic fears and hopes as you. Watch grace flow into the situation and the monster evaporate.

(1) Climacus, John. The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 2
(2) Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters, XV
(3) 2 John 1:12

Friday, October 25, 2013

Making Life Work

often find myself focused on a single aspect of my life and -- I bet you can relate -- becoming discouraged over that one aspect.

Am I spending enough time with my family? Am I growing and improving intellectually? Do I devote enough time to prayer/spiritual growth? Am I current on developments in my profession? When will I work?

And, when will I run, BABY?

You look at an author like John Grisham and realize how prolific he is. You look at the life of a saint and realize the enormous time she devotes to the service of others and to prayer. You look at your colleagues and are astounded by the hours they put in. You look at other runners and realize the amazing number of miles and hours they put in and the results they're seeing.

Then, you look at yourself. And, ouch.

But, would I want John Grisham's 5k PR? Does he even have one? I envy the active nature of a postal worker or UPS delivery person's life. But, how about all the hours they spend in a vehicle? How about the million and one other aggravations they face? I deeply admire the great ascetics of the Egyptian desert, both ancient and modern, but could I really lived in a cave with little social interaction? I regret that I cannot train like an elite marathoner, but do I want the financial and physical pressure that so many of the world's top runners live beneath?

I would love to see what I could do on 100 miles, 2-3 weight sessions and one massage per week. But with my body, work schedule, and family and community commitments, it ain't happening.

Though I read it over 20 years ago, one element of the Life of Antony stood out to me. Before he was Antony the Great, the Father of Christian Monasticism, etc., he was just an 18-year old named Antony. His biographer writes:
And at first he began to abide in places out side the village: then if he heard of a good man anywhere, like the prudent bee, he went forth and sought him, nor turned back to his own place until he had seen him; and he returned, having got from the good man as it were supplies for his journey in the way of virtue(1). 
He didn't follow one teacher, he went from one to the next, like a "prudent bee." He took from each of them and integrated into his life. 

I was reminded of this when the Hobby Jogger advised an aspiring marathoner overwhelmed by the plethora of running plans and widely-accepted books. He wrote, "I'd say read a few of the books (cover to cover, not just look at the suggested schedules) and cook your own plan based on what works for you and your life. You'll probably find more similarities than differences among them." 

In training, in prayer, in running, in all the schools and all the books, I have found "more similarities than differences among them."

The same goes for training and eating. Among the 1,000,001 "diets" (all claiming to be "lifestyles," naturally) take Fruitarianism. I am particularly impressed the accomplishments of one of its chief enthusiasts, Mike Arnstein. But, it does not work for me to spend all that money on fruit, to ask my wife to only buy fruit, and for heaven's sake only fruits and raw vegetables? Come on, man! And then there is "Paleo" and, and, and. I have learned to take the best, the overriding themes in each and integrate them into my life, my situation, my puzzle (2). 

Our lives, it seems are more like a Rubik's Cubes than 2-dimensional puzzles: You take steps to improve one area (stay up late with your family, get up earlier to run) and another one gets shoved out of joint (rest)(3). You sleep in, you miss your run and/or you're late to work.
Our lives are a lot like Rubik's Cubes

I have been working on the best habit of all: The habit of being where I am and being faithful to what is in my life. It's hard for a dreamer, you know. 

I'll give you an example of a really, really weird habit of mine, an approach to my particular Rubik's Cube. After I explain it, you will know what anyone close to me knows: I am a little crazy (4). But hey that's me, so I am gonna harness it:
If you have a desk job, you know that it wreaks havoc with your body. Whenever, you have been sitting at my desk for a while, your hips, glutes and legs begin to tighten. This has been the bane of my running life. But what can I do? I have a desk job and one that requires many hours. That's my situation and, for many reasons, I am not changing it any time soon. I do not want to spend extra time away from my family and my running to do strength work. 

So, what's an eccentric runner boy to do?

Well, I drink lots of water, and whenever I get up to go to the bathroom, I go down to the first floor, up to the fourth floor, and back down to the second floor, taking two stairs at a time. Then, I'll do a set of some kind of strength work (pushups, bridges). The whole thing takes, what, two minutes? But I have cleared my head, stayed off social media (, for the win!) and kept my body moving. You may find it a little weird but, dearly beloved, I don't care.
Breakfast of champions?
When do I learn? Mostly, in the car.
When do I run? Whenever I can. 
When do I spend time with my family? Every second I get. 
When do I pray? Ideally, always (4). 
When do I sleep? Um. 

That's my life; those are the pieces. What about yours? 

(1) Life of Antony, ch. 1., par. 3
(2) None seem to condone Taco Bell. Alas. 
(3) Speaking of marathons, Bob Hearn, who wrote a book on puzzles and runs marathons while solving Rubik's Cubes, also wrote a great summary of the prominent marathon training approaches. 
(4) And so are you. 
(5) Brother Lawrence, a 17th Century lay brother in Paris wrote in his classic, The Practice of the Presence of God, “A little lifting up of the heart suffices; a little remembrance of God, an interior act of adoration, even though made on the march and with sword in hand, are prayers which, short though they may be, are nevertheless very pleasing to God, and far from making a soldier lose his courage on the most dangerous occasions, bolster it. Let him then think of God as much as possible so that he will gradually become accustomed to this little but holy exercise; no one will notice it and nothing is easier than to repeat often during the day these little acts of interior adoration.”