Tuesday, May 9, 2017

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

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