Friday, March 04, 2005

What I Do When I Feel Blue

This is being written on the fly, in blogger and columnist James Lileks' Daily Bleat style. If punctuation, spelling, or grammatical errors show up, I'll ask for your indulgence.

I just got off the phone with my wife. She suggested that I be honest enough to post a blog about our topic of conversation. As she put it, "Lots of people feel what you're feeling, Mark. Tell them that it's okay to have down-times and also how you get out of them."

At the risk of seeming to invite you to my pity party, it's true, I am in a blue mood right now.

I have little right to feel this way. Any examination of the circumstances of my life will show that I am a blessed person.

My son has completed his undergraduate career, is gainfully employed, and has a relationship with a wonderful young woman.

My daughter is in college and engaged to a fine young man who both my wife and I like a lot.

My wife is extremely supportive of me.

I've got great friends and positive relationships with my extended family.

Our home is wonderful.

The church I pastor couldn't be more considerate of me. And great things are happening in the congregation.

But the "blue dog" (a slighter version of Churchill's "black dog") still comes to haunt me from time to time.

There are numerous reasons for this latest assault:

I went for my annual physical on Tuesday. Yesterday, the doctor's assistant called to say that my cholesterol level was slightly elevated and, by the way, I need to lose thirty pounds. The weight thing came as no surprise, really. For months now, I've been unable to fit into 90% of my pants, but have put off actually dealing with the fact, thinking to myself, "Eventually, I'll take it off through diet and exercise, and be able to fit into them again." So far, eventually hasn't happened.

Helping two kids pay off their college loans. Maintaining a household we now share with two twenty-somethings. Home mortgage. HELOC. Car repairs. Taxes. Upcoming wedding. Sometimes, I feel like we're hemorrhaging money.

A few other misclellaneous items are thrown in--like shrimps on the barbie, to create this "blue dog." Among them, is this blog.

I love to write. I get positive feedback for my writing. As I've written here before, nobody writes hoping to get a small audience. Some days, the audiences for my blog are tremendous. Other days, the numbers are in the toilet. There seems to be no consistency in audience numbers, making me wonder if anything I write really helps people, the ultimate measure of any writing worth the space it takes on a computer screen or a page.

Frankly, too, I would love to get some of my stuff actually published. But, in spite of the affirmation--even from people who write well and are published themselves--it doesn't happen. It's frustrating.

A final ingredient in my blue dog stew is that I'm simply exhausted right now. All the elements of my schedule recently have left me feeling spent.

Now, if you've read up to this point, you may want to smack me and tell me, as Cher told Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck, "Snap out of it!"

Here, at my wife's suggestion, is how I do snap out of it when the blue dog comes for a visit. If it helps you, that's great.

The first thing I do is pray. Don't skip ahead to the next item. I mean it. I pray, really pray. The God Who shows Himself through Jesus Christ cares about every thing that we're feeling and thinking and going through.

The Bible records that God is even willing to listen when our sadness or anger are unwarranted.

God gave a man named Jonah a mission. Jonah was to go to a city called Nineveh and tell the people there that God was so upset with their sins that He was getting set to destroy the whole town.

Jonah hated the Ninevites. He also knew God's character. He knew that if, after hearing about their impending doom, the Ninevites repudiated their sin and asked God to help them follow Him and to live their lives God's way, God might change His mind about His plans for Nineveh. Jonah didn't want the Ninevites to be touched by God's forgiveness, he wanted them to be torched by God's wrath.

So, Jonah ran away from Nineveh. He hopped onto a ship on the Mediterranean.

You know what happened. God got angry with Jonah and created a storm. Jonah at least had the integrity to tell his shipmates that God wasn't upset with any of them, but with him.

"Throw me overboard," Jonah tells them. They do. The sea grows calm. Jonah treads water...Until a giant fish swallows him.

For three days, Jonah is in that belly, praying for God's mercy and glorifying God. Then, the fish vomits Jonah onto dry land.

Now, Jonah, probably looking and smelling wonderful, goes to Nineveh. He tells the Ninevites, "In a few days, you're all going to be toast because God is upset with your sinfulness." That's all Jonah says.

His worst fears come to pass: The Ninevites repent.

Now Jonah is really angry. He fumes and pouts and spews forth anger and juvenile accusations at God. He takes respite under a shade tree and directs his fist-shaking prayers heavenward.

The shade tree had been put there for Jonah's benefit. But the shade doesn't last long. God sends a worm to bring it down.

Now, Jonah is upset again. "That was my shade tree!" he whines.

"Yep," God tells him. "It was your shade tree. Not now. It's gone. But think about this, Jonah. You get upset over the loss of a shade tree. Imagine how I feel when people I love walk away from Me and decide that they'd rather die than have the life I give. Imagine how I would have felt had I let Nineveh live with the consequences of its sin. If you've got the right to love a shade tree and to mourn its loss, haven't I got the right to refrain from punishing a group of people who are sorry for their sins and willing to walk with Me again?"

At the end of Jonah's book, Jonah is still fuming. Still mad at God. And still talking with God.

That's the point. Sometimes we have this notion that our prayers need to be flowery eloquence and impeccable, unquestioning faith.

I always tell people that prayer is nothing other than heartfelt conversation with God. You don't have to sanitize your prayers for God. God knows what you're feeling and thinking. David, who turned to God after his double sins of adultery and murder, told God that he realized that God would never despise someone who is truthful with Him.

Whether it's admitting our sin, our anger, or our blue dog moods, God still desires truth in the inward heart.

So, when I go through the blue dog, I pray.

I also talk it over with people who care about me. Like my wife. Sometimes, they tell me to, "Snap out of it!" And rightly so.

But other times, they listen. Sometimes, they sympathize. Occasionally, they offer helpful suggestions.

We are God's gifts to each other and, as the old saw puts it, we reduce the weight of our burdens when we share them with others.

I get moving, physically and otherwise. I take a walk, go to the gym, saunter through a mall, read the Bible or another book. Getting the body moving physically or getting the mind focused outside of oneself isn't denial, it's something else. I'm not suggesting that we run away from our problems, but take a vacation from them. (I know it sounds like Richard Dreyfus' advice to Bill Murray in one of the early scenes in What About Bob?, but hear--or read--me out.)

For one thing, moving the body is a time-proven psychological boost.

Reading or thinking about something else is a mental vacation. As happens whenever we go on our yearly vacations, these short mental or physical excursions allow me to come back to whatever problems I may be dealing with at any given time with renewed energy and new inspiration.

You know the story of Eli Whitney and his invention of the sewing machine, I'll bet. He'd been working on it for some time and was getting nowhere fast.

So, frustrated, he went to bed. That night he had a dream. He was in some primitive part of the world and taken captive by cannibals. At one point, he looked at their spears and noticed something peculiar: The spears were like giant needles with the eyelets on the bottom rather than the top. That turned out to be the solution for which Whitney had been looking. If he put the eyelets of his needles on the bottom rather than the top, he could make his sewing machine work.

That's what taking a mental vacation can do for you.

Another thing I do when the blue dog hits me is get my gaze off my own navel. I think of somebody else.

I pray for them.

I call them up to find out how they're doing and not let on that I've been in a funk, just being solicitous of them and their well-being.

I do something for someone else. In fact, that's what I'm doing in this post. I'm hoping that someone out there will read this and that it will help them. Maybe it will make you or some other reader feel that you're not alone, that you're not the only person who has ever been down in spite of all the good things happening in your life.

If my first and next piece of advice reflect ways of loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, the first part of Jesus' Great Commandment, doing something for others reflects the second part of that commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.

One of the key ingredients in successful support groups is that they make participants feel that they're not alone in whatever challenges they face in life, be it alcoholism, parenting, or looking for a job.

God made us for each other. The temptation when I'm blue is to crawl inside myself and look for solutions in the dark interior places of my soul.

But looking inside of oneself too long always leads to greater depression. (This is why so many of the self-help gurus, with their advice to look inside ourselves, are so wrong.) The foundational key to happiness and recovery from problems that aren't physiologically-based is in looking up to God and looking out to others.

Finally, I put things in God's hands. This isn't quite the same as my first bit of advice, where I commended prayer. There, I was really talking about venting to God, telling God about what's going on.

When we put things in God's hands, we're releasing our problems, our challenges, our needs, and our lives to Him.

When I put things in God's hands, I'll tell God something like, "God, I don't know what to do, but You do. I put this in Your hands. As I work and think, I ask You to show me what to do and how to solve things. Give me insights I wouldn't have on my own. Fill me with Your Holy Spirit for that purpose."

You know what I've found? God always answers that prayer. Always.

A few weeks ago, I rushed through a busy schedule, completing my Sunday message on a Thursday afternoon in anticipation of a crazy Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. On Saturday night at about 11:30, I went to my computer to print off the Sunday message I'd written earlier. Even though I was tired, I decided to read it again. It was awful!

Then, I realized that I had been in such a hurry that while I had done all the translation and background study work (what's called exegesis) that goes into writing a Sunday message, I hadn't really prayed about. I hadn't put my efforts in God's hands.

Predictably, as happens any time I rely on myself alone, the result was a lousy sermon.

So, I told God, "Lord, it's late and I'm tired. But I owe it to You and I owe it to the people who will be in worship tomorrow to come up with something better. I have no idea what to write. But, please help me."

I stared for a few moments at the screen and went back over my notes. Then, an idea hit me and I began to do my usual three-finger pecking at the computer keyboard. By 12:45, I had something.

It was a message about which I got quite a few positive comments from people saying they found it helpful.

That wouldn't have happened if I hadn't put the whole project where it belonged, in God's hands.

I feel a lot better than I did when I first sat down at the computer a few moments ago. I hope that, if you were fighting the blue dog, you feel a little better now, too.

UPDATE: Thanks to Rob Asghar of Dimestore Guru, for linking to this piece and coupling it with a dynamite quote from Martha Graham. Thanks also to those who have sent emails or who have commented here commending this piece. I've an idea that it's not just God Who is attracted to us when we demonstrate truth in our inward hearts. (cf. Psalm 51)


Alex said...

I guess if you're feeling "blue" I shouldn't say I enjoyed your post!! Anyway, you're perfectly normal!! Everyone's life is a sine wave which I've tried to point out on my blog every once in a while. My approach to God is:

1. Well you certainly got me into a fine mess this time.

2. Are you going to get me out of it or do I have to do the work myself???

3. Thanks for the mess. It ended up to be a splendid adventure!!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing!

I'm glad to know we can experience and display a full range of emotions. It's much easier for my brain to accept than my heart.

We don't always have to have on our happy cheerleading outfits and faces.

Deborah White said...

You NEED to attend a how-to-publish writing conference or of those attended by agents and editors. You will find new motivations and creativity. There are many for Christian-genre writers. I have info on some, and have attended a couple. They are divine for inspiration! :)

FYI...What you wrote is extraordinary! It should be published.

Phyllis said...

Great post Mark!
That blue puppy tried to visit me Wed but you read my post and noticed that it was chased away!
Love ya!!

Anonymous said...

you don't know me- I just happened to google "what to do when you feel blue" and came upon your blog. My husband is actually finishing his MDiv in a few months, I am pregnant and told I will not be rehired in the fall (no chance for maternity leave or many job prospects at this point). I am worried about our debt, whether either of us will get jobs, health insurance, etc. I am hormonal and very blue.

Anyway, I think God really spoke to me through your words. Thanks.