When What We Consume Consumes Us

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Aday or two before the dreaded time change back in the beginning of November, I threw out a few questions to my Facebook friends in regards to how to face the dreaded darkness that was about to descend upon us:  What are your most successful coping strategies for adjusting and thriving? Or even just surviving? Is it just me or does this just seem to get harder every year? I am happy to report, my FB Friends did not disappoint and I received nearly twenty responses full of empathy and helpful suggestions. I waded through them all to find the common denominators and made my mind up to incorporate a few into my daily and weekly routine: Up my intake of Vitamin D; check! Take walks outside in nature; check! Get to the gym on the regular; check! Eat more nutritionally dense foods; check! As the days shortened in November and December, I honestly felt as if my newly incorporated practices were making for a better season than I had anticipated. I was thriving and productive…at least until January rolled around.

The Dawn of a New Decade: 2020

Returning home after work in the permeating gray gloom on most days and the darkness on others, all I could bring myself to do after crossing the threshold of the front door was to greet my family of humans and felines, change into my most comfortable pair of sweats and plop myself down on the sofa. From that point in the evening, the struggle to keep myself awake became the all-consuming challenge for the few hours until 8 p.m. or so. At that time, I could somehow justify to myself that it was time for bed. (Before you judge me, you should probably know that one of my cats does make a pretty forceful attempt to wake me at 3:30 a.m. each day ; )

In my nightly pursuit of alertness, I quickly discovered that if I tried to crack open the cover of one of the fifteen or so books I have in the TO READ pile next to my sofa, within a couple of pages not even toothpicks propped in my open eyes could keep my eyelids from closing. The thought of getting up to cook or clean or God forbid, leave the house to go shopping, was WAY too overwhelming to even consider. On most nights, my ace-in-the-hole go-to solution to stay awake was to consume the high adrenaline producing news of the day. With a simple click of the remote, I could get ticked off enough by the reporting of national political shenanigans to get my 2-3 hour buzz of wakefulness to cross the finish line until my 8 p.m bedtime. In the absence of any other truly meaningful productivity in my life outside of work, subconsciously I had convinced myself that becoming an angry couch activist who was tempted to hate certain politicians with every new bombshell of a story, was a good and worthwhile undertaking.

February: A Light LITERALLY Shines in the Darkness

January 2020 will go down tied with January 1914 as the third gloomiest on record. The Chicago area was officially just four minutes shy of nine straight days without sun thanks to a brief break in the clouds Friday morning.”

CHICAGO (WLS)

After what felt like an eternal stretch of time without sunshine, about a week ago, the golden ball in the sky finally reappeared. Almost instantly, I felt reinvigorated. And with several days of light following the first one, shining into the darkest recesses of my psyche, the idea is beginning to occur to me that maybe, just possibly, the very thing I was consuming nightly during the past month has really been consuming me and not in any sort of positive way.

Why is it that I am so quick to give my power away to those who anger me for making the most vulnerable among us feel powerless and afraid? Why do I allow these individuals to make me into someone I don’t want to be? Why would I give anyone the power to make me hate them when a hateful and spiteful person is not who I want to become in this world?

In a recent interview I heard with Ruby Sales, an African-American social justice activist, she explained how the enslaved created spirituals to sing to remind them of the power they each had, even in the midst of slavery. I was especially captivated about what she had to say about hatred as addressed in one of the spirituals she was taught, “I Love Everybody in My Heart”:

“You can’t make me hate you. You can’t make me hate you in my heart.’ Now that’s very powerful,” she says, “because you have to understand that this spiritual was an acknowledgement not only that we control our internal lives but it also contested the notion of the omnipotent power of the white enslaver.” By insisting on the humanity even of the enslaver, black folk religion transcended the opposites of victims and victimizers.”

https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/

She went on to explain the difference between redemptive anger and non-redemptive anger:

Well, first of all, as you’ve just pointed out, love is not antithetical to being outraged. Let’s be very clear about that. And love is not antithetical to anger. There are two kinds of anger. There’s redemptive anger, and there’s non-redemptive anger. And so redemptive anger is the anger that says that — that moves you to transformation and human up-building.”

https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/

With this dawning revelation, I entered the pew on Saturday night to worship and be inspired by the words of the Scriptures, instead of being agitated by non-redemptive angry words found in tweets and reactionary news stories and ugly back and forth discourse on social media. I longed to be reminded that I can’t control the world, but I can control myself. What I heard was life-giving and affirming. It caused me to recall the kind of person I want to become and the simple, yet challenging actions I can take which will lead me there.

Thus says the Lord: Share your bread with the hungry; shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own…then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your wound shall be quickly healed…If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”

Isaiah 58:7, 8a, 9b-10

What became crystal clear to me that night is that by devouring the national news of polarization and vitriol, I have been allowing forces beyond my control to paralyze me in a state of non-redemptive anger, effectively devouring my ability to become an active participant in creating a community in which the vulnerable are cared for, where the marginalized are lifted up and all are treated with dignity.

Moving Forward in a Year of Election

There is a common theme that runs through the teachings of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta that has always remained a difficult one for me to embrace. Many of her most quotable moments are summed up in this one:

It is easy to love the people far away.  It is not always easy to love those close to us. Bring love into your home, for this is where our love for each other must start.”

St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta

On a recent return trip home from my early morning coffee run, I spied them. Mother and teenage son, walking on our street, bundled up in heavy layers in the pre-dawn darkness of a snowy and cold winter’s day. As my car grew closer, the outline of the tool in their hands grew clearer. Each of them was walking in opposite directions from their house, carrying a shovel with which to clear the driveways and walkways of elderly neighbors on our block.

Such a simple view of how we can make a difference in our world each day is not exciting, it isn’t adrenaline producing, nor does it ignite a sense of righteousness and need to feel important. Instead, loving those close to me is hard. It is humbling. It is self-sacrificial. Many times it doesn’t lead to any sort of special acknowledgment. In my experience these acts of love in my home and neighborhood and workplace don’t energize me, but more often times deplete me. Yet as I am promised by my Creator and shown by the examples of people in my lifetime, these simple ways of channeling my redemptive anger will effectively build up and transform those in my family, in my local community and ultimately in my world. They will even change me.

Each vote in the upcoming election, though an action of great importance, a right earned for us through the sacrifices of many brave men and women throughout the ages, remains but a tiny ripple of influence in a world ripe for a revolution of civility, kindness and redemptive love. However, I realize that in these remaining months before the election, I can pray for the courage and strength to choose what remains mine to choose every single day, now and forever.

May I choose acts of transforming love over acts of non-redemptive anger and hatred. May I choose to share my bread with the hungry instead of sharing vitriolic articles on social media about my adversaries. May I choose to shelter the oppressed instead of oppressing those with whom I disagree. May I choose to clothe the naked with dignity, instead of stripping the humanity from those whom I don’t trust. May I choose to support my own family and friends, even when we don’t see eye to eye on how things should be. And may the love I choose to preserve be that which preserves me. For it is then, as the Prophet Isaiah foretold, “light shall rise for you in the darkness and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”

Good Day, Sunshine!

The Beginning of Freedom is to Call Things by their Right Names

Cill_Rialaig_AI

Cill Rialaig, photograph by Bill Miles

When I was still too young to have learned words to express what was happening within my inner life, there were times I felt myself to be absolutely trapped in a sense of utter terror, seemingly without warning or understanding and without the ability to ask for help. It took until I was almost 20 years old to finally learn that there was a name for experiences like these: panic attacks. They were debilitating and confusing and scary. As a child, these experiences made me feel as if my whole world were off kilter and the ground might open up and swallow me whole. Most times there was no specific fear that triggered them. They would simply sneak up on me unexpectedly and felt scarier than any monster hiding under my bed because (a) I could not see them coming and (b) I could not escape them. I remember one of the things I would do to try to lessen the sense of impending doom was to draw near to my parents. I would search for them in the house and stay close. This was the only semi-remedy that I recall could sustain me until the terror passed.

In early adolescence, I slowly began to figure out a repeating pattern as to when I could most definitely expect panic to pay me an unsolicited visit. It seemed to always coincide with overnight visits or vacations. Being in a new environment where everything looked unfamiliar made me feel as if I had entered a sort of twilight zone. It was as if I was no longer on the same plane as everyone else, but rather in a space in between. Nothing felt normal, nothing looked right, I didn’t feel as if I was inhabiting my usual body and soul and again, I lacked the words to describe the experience to anyone around me. Panic would crash upon my shores like an unexpected tsunami. I can only imagine this made me an entirely unpleasant travel companion.

In high school, my frequent encounters with panic were joined by other unpleasant emotions, including depression. Between the frequent attacks of anxiety and the depression that would follow, it was getting increasingly hard to live life. Finally in a moment of desperation, I reached out and asked for help. My parents responded lovingly and within the week I was sitting in the office of a man who still, to this day, serves as my trusty psychologist when he is most needed. For years, not once did he give me a label as to what was this thing that imprisoned me. He listened and indirectly taught me how to better cope with my symptoms and slowly helped me to feel better and stronger. But there was this one day, when I decided to the look at the receipt he handed me after every session to pass on to my parents. On it I found a code for my diagnosis and I decided to look it up.

There is an old Chinese Proverb which reads, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names”, but in my case, I would like to apologize to the wise Chinese and put a wee little Irish spin on this proverb (simply because I’m most proudly of Irish descent) and rephrase it to read, “The beginning of freedom is to call things by their right names.”

309.28: Adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood. 

Finally; my disconcerting experience of life as I knew it had a name. 309.28: Adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood. Kinda like a title, a first name, a middle name and a last name. Having a name meant it could be known and maybe even understood. It meant it didn’t only exist in my head, but it was real. It meant it was so real that it was identified with a list of common symptoms in a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Practitioners of Mental Health.

In an article entitled,  The Power Of A Name: The Power Of Naming, Rabbi Andrew Davids brings clarity to this experience when he writes:

God gave human beings the ability and power to name. Just as God separates light from darkness and dry land from water, the biblical text affirms that humans–created in the image of God–may seek to bring order to our chaotic and dynamic world through the process of naming.”

Humans may seek to bring order to our chaotic world…through the process of naming. Though throughout my life, I’ve met many people who would rather not “be labeled” by their specific diagnosis, the day I learned the name of my nemesis is the day it lost a whole lot of power and my journey of freedom began.

In the years that followed, I made it my life’s mission to rid myself from my role as the unsuspecting victim of an unknown maleficenceIn the pre-internet days I devoured every possible book I could get my hands on that would help me to learn the ins and outs of adjustment disorder and anxiety. In the early days of the internet I read of others’ experiences which sounded just like mine. Misery does love company because it teaches us there are others as miserable as us. We are not alone. We are not without understanding. Most importantly, it teaches us we are not without hope. Knowledge didn’t completely stop waves of panic from lapping upon the shores of my life. However, I learned to see it for what it was. I figured out some good ways to anchor myself in the sand, so that even though its cold and crashing waves might leave me worn out and tattered, they would not be able to carry me off into the sea where I could drown.

It has been nearly 30 years since my nemesis was named. Though I wouldn’t say we are on a first name basis, 309.28 and I have learned to co-exist, and on most days ours is a peaceful co-existence. The paradox is I know I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for its presence in my life. I will even go so far as to admit it prepared me well to be able to better respond to my own child who began experiencing her own panic attacks at an early age. By the time she was 10 years old she already knew its name and was well on her way on the path of liberation.

Definition of freedom (from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary):

1the quality or state of being free: such as 

athe absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action 

bliberation from restraint or from the power of another 

cthe quality or state of being released usually from something onerous”

When I consider the definition of freedom I must admit that although I am so much more liberated than I was before I learned the name of my nemesis, it still constrains me in two particular ways: (1) I have allowed it to hold be back from the desire to travel and experience new places, lands and cultures. (2) I have also allowed it to steal from me the experience of being comfortable being by myself, let alone traveling by myself, for fear that without loved ones near to save me, I might surely be swallowed into the earth or carried off into the sea–and that would be a terrible thing, especially while in a foreign country!

My admiration remains strong for my friends and family members who have collectively seen most of the world and are better and more interesting people for having done so. Some of them even ventured out on their own and they lived to tell about it! Traveling vicariously through their stories is as good as it gets for a girl who prefers to stay in one place for fear of re-entering the twilight zone. Yet I am happy to report that in recent years, a dream has been born in my heart to take back the reins and to face the greatest anxiety- provoking travel experiences of my childhood. The name of my dream is Cill Rialaig.

On the southwest coast of Ireland, the Cill Rialaig Project rescued and restored a small pre-famine village, thus creating an artists retreat that has attracted artists from all over the world. It is a retreat for professional visual artists, writers, poets and composers who apply for a residency to live for a short time at the Cill Rialaig Retreat and work on their craft. Ireland is calling to me and to Cill Rialiag I desire to go, by myself, to work for a week on writing. Remembering from my youthful experience that good things can begin to happen when we reach out and ask for help, I contacted my friend Carlos, an editor of a locally published magazine. Within a short period of time, he had published my writing and continues to do so in hopes that I might meet the requirements to apply for the residency. Even now he remains one of my fiercest co-freedom fighters.

Although freedom is most certainly a process, one that takes at least an entire lifetime to attain and for all I know, probably some of eternity too, what I am certain about is that mine began the day I was emboldened to call things by their right name. Thank you 309.28!