Thursday, June 23, 2016

How to succeed at life by really, really trying.

I used to be obsessed with self-improvement, advice, bulleted lists of "7 things not to do if you want a healthy marriage" or "8 Ways to Make Your Life Happier", and discerning every possible lesson I could out of every lecture, sermon, or story I heard. Some of this was driven by my anxiety, which led me to obsess about the future, so I would try to prepare for it as much as possible by learning lessons from others' mistakes and making rules for myself based on such misfortunes. I read any article I saw about how to have a happy marriage because I was terrified of having a dysfunctional or argumentative one even though my parents and grandparents had happy marriages.

Beyond this, I was bent on constantly becoming a better person, learning, and being convicted when I needed to improve, much of which was driven by my almost obsessive dedication to my faith, which I think was in some ways fueled by anxiety too. The fear of doing something wrong and messing up my life or hurting myself or others or disappointing God. The desire to live up to expectations. I can't pick it all apart, but I know the drive was constantly there. It wasn't a bad thing; I'm glad I set the bar high, strove to be better and have good character, and remained open to the things I could learn even from a useless, rambling message. But it was a bit exhausting at times and fed my anxiety so that I was driven to distraction by fear and guilt at times if I, say, didn't read my Bible one night.

Now that I've gone through something pretty awful, I sometimes think I should no longer have to fear treacherous times in the future. But I still don't feel entirely confident in my ability to weather such storms, and I certainly dread the day I will have to return to the hellish place of unspeakable sorrow and unbreachable loneliness. Whenever I have short relapses back into depression, I am always scared that I'm falling back into that pit I was in a year ago: unceasing, unrelenting darkness -- the weight of the world that no one realizes is on your shoulders.

And since I've made it past those darkest cafe days into recovery, I've found that I can't bear even the subtitles of any book, article, social media post, or whatever that smacks of advice, how-to's, life improvement guidance, etc. After I came home from college, I remember how hollow I felt sitting in church one Sunday. It was like those movies where the sound fades out and the edges of the screen get blurry and the main character just stares. I watched the pastor joyfully throw his hands in the air in praise, alternately strumming his acoustic guitar with an unbridled passion, exhorting us all to sing of God's goodness to us. It was like someone had pushed pause on my life. "Ummm...Wait a second. Why should I thank God for his goodness? When I just went through a hella shit and cried out to him every minute with no reply? When some of those who claimed to be his people, his body, my family in Christ turned their freaking backs on me? When I went to a Christian school to serve God and everyone just rejected me and God closed every door, one after another, that I tried to open? And now I would have to leave. You expect me to praise him?"

I couldn't bear going to church any more and I don't think I'll ever feel the same about the institution as I did before. Sermons, teachings, preachings, and well-meant but didactic, somewhat-demeaning conversations with parishioners became like sandpaper to my soul. They still are. I couldn't hear people preach at me, I couldn't read my Bible. I was so broken, so betrayed, so afraid. I had always been someone who had the answers for things and who had followed the directions. But now my answers failed me and all my efforts to carefully plan my path could never have prevented the awful times that plopped down in the unfolding of my young life.

I was tired of the advice, including my own. I learned that sometimes there's nothing you can do to fix things. That's why I flinch a little inside and draw back when I hear people emphasize how if you just get the right diet, sleep pattern, exercise habits, lifestyle choices, religious beliefs, thought patterns, etc., whether counselors or friends or religious teachers or book covers or Gwyneth Paltrow is saying it. I know better. Sometimes you're broken and you couldn't avoid getting that way and you can't do much of anything to get out of it. You've tried everything and nothing's worked and some things have even made things worse. You had the best intentions, aspirations, and played by all of the rules. You are still pushing with all of your might, the only problem is you're so weak you can barely stand.

So I've learned, or am in the process of learning, to extend myself grace. To be patient with the learning curves of life, the imperfections, the far-from-ideals. I've stopped reading those advice books. I'm sure some of them have good things to say, but I'm learning to listen to my inner voice when it says, "No, not today. That's not what I need."

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