The Plague of Happiness

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It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything. My “best” posts (or at least the ones I like the most) have been the darker ones. The ones written in times of struggling, frustration, confusion. The ones most “relatable” since we all so often find ourselves struggling, frustrated, and confused. So I’ve carried this fear with me that if I write anything outside of those categories it wouldn’t be received well, or worse, would be fall into that untenable category of “cheesy.”

I fear sounding trite more than maybe anything else, and the last thing I want is a “puppies and rainbows” kind of post here. But I’m going to write about happiness and I hope that’s ok.

I listened to a Ted Talk recently given by Daniel Kahneman and titled “The riddle of experience vs. memory.” It’s fascinating and I recommend it. One of the things he talks about are the “cognitive traps” of happiness. I’ll quote him here:

“There are several cognitive traps that … make it almost impossible to think straight about happiness…

The first of these traps is a reluctance to admit complexity. It turns out that the word “happiness” is just not a useful word anymore, because we apply it to too many different things…

The second trap is a confusion between experience and memory… between being happy in your life, and being happy about your life or happy with your life. And those are two very different concepts, and they’re both lumped in the notion of happiness.

And the third is the focusing illusion, and it’s the unfortunate fact that we can’t think about any circumstance that affects well-being without distorting its importance.”

I can’t do justice to any one of those ideas, much less all three, but o how they resonate. “Happy” has always felt like such a shallow emotion to me. In the Christian world we talk a lot about the difference between happiness and joy, the former being fleeting, while the latter carries a connotation of depth and endurance. And I think I interpreted that to mean that happiness is useless, weak even. Happiness is for the immature Christian; joy is for the varsity.

To be sure, happiness has a place in our lives. It’s a gift. It’s a reprieve from the trials that we are warned of, even promised, in scripture (John 16:33). But how much weight should it carry? Does it make me a more mature Christian to downplay my happiness because I know it is temporary? Or is that the cognitive trap of distorting its importance?

I’ll pause here because there are so many tentacles of this issue that I want to pursue and I’m finding myself heading that way. Is happiness a worthy pursuit for the Christian? How does Christian hedonism come into play? Why is suffering so seemingly “glorified” in our culture? And on and on.

I hope to explore those ideas soon. On my own or on paper, I’m not sure. But today I’m most struck by happiness itself and why I’m so damn scared of it.

I’m terrified to be happy. Which is pretty inconvenient because recently I really have been. I love the freedom of my job, the ability to travel as often as I want, the slow mornings in my apartment spent with hot tea and open windows. I love fall and the long awaited release of the Texas heat. I love my family, amidst all the messiness and change, and the friends who’ve walked with me through it, and who dream with me about jobs we might want and lives we might live. I have two legs that can run (albeit slowly), two hands that can cook (albeit messily), and this wildly good looking guy that keeps wanting to hang out with me and I couldn’t tell you why.

And I’m scared to enjoy any of it because what if I enjoy it too much am I making it an idol does that mean I don’t love God enough will he take it away to teach me a lesson I really don’t want to go back to the valley what if this is the calm before the storm

Somewhere along the way I’ve convinced myself that I get too happy the plagues will come. Just as the Lord sent plagues to the Egyptians to dethrone their gods and empty them of their promises, surely God will plague the very things that make me happy, too. Surely I’m too weak to enjoy something without making it an idol. Surely the locusts will swarm the second I get too comfortable.

To be sure, God does love us enough to reveal to us our idols to remind us that he alone satisfies. And often he does so by taking that idol away or diluting its effect. This is good and right for him to do. He has done it for me many times and, though painful, it is beautiful, gracious, and kind.

But I think I’ve bloated this picture of God’s love for me to the point of denying his good gifts. I’m so terrified that my happiness will inevitably lead to loss – so paralyzed by the fear of enjoying them “too much” – that I’ve confused blessings for arrows and act like there’s a target on my back.

As if God is up there with his bow just waiting to teach me a lesson. As if he doesn’t want to give me good gifts. As if he’s waiting for me to cross some arbitrary threshold of happiness to remind me who’s boss. As if he isn’t the author of happiness himself.

It’s good to be aware of the potential pitfalls of idolatry and to be careful. But when we end up doing spiritual somersaults to avoid them, I think we miss the whole point. We start looking for locusts. We miss out on enjoying his good and perfect gifts (James 1:17). We distort the importance of the giver himself.

There are still a lot of questions here, a lot of fears simmering, a lot of unknowns in the days and months to come. But for today, and for however long this season lasts, I want to know that God is not trying to trap me, trust that he delights in my gladness, and enjoy the still waters he’s led me to.

Is this miracle enough for anybody? Or has the thunder of “god loved the world so much” been so muffled by the roar of religions rhetoric that we are deaf to the word that God could have tender feelings for us?” – Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning

An Elevated Position – The Dallas Shooting

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Tonight I sat in my bed watching Suits on my computer while eleven police officers were shot two blocks from my apartment. And I’m not sure what I was doing when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed but I imagine it involved something similarly trivial like snacking or watching snap stories. Sirens are still loud outside. The live feed of the news is playing in the background and I feel a weird mix of scared and sad and helpless. They said the snipers opened fire from an elevated position.

I said I’d never post about this kind of thing. I always feel irritated when people do. I avoid Facebook on weeks of social outrage because people’s posts irritate me and I don’t really know why. I hate that about myself. We all feel indignant, or outraged, or spurred on to action and no one knows how to handle that, Facebook or otherwise.

But this is my home. I run on that street. I ran there yesterday. And now I’m seeing it on the news littered with cops crouching behind cars.

Earlier today, I prayed about my annoyance with social media after events like these. It shouldn’t be irritating – we all want to speak out, to be heard. But it starts to feel like we’re all just trying to outdo each other on how reverent and reflective we can be. We’re just hashtagging things. Broadcasting our outrage or support or prayers, but to what end? Updating a status isn’t really doing anything and it pisses me off. I get a weird, elitist attitude about it, but I don’t know why. It’s not like I’m really doing anything either.

So I try harder to identify my underlying frustration and I struggle. Because, like all of us, it’s a hundred things at the same time. Disgust and fear and dumbfoundedness and deep, deep sadness. But I realize that one thing ties all of those emotions together, one thing is common in almost every Facebook status and blog and tweet and hashtag in these moments, and it’s that we all act as if we’re all so above this. We just can’t believe things like this can happen in our world. We just can’t believe people can do a thing like that. I just can’t believe I can exist in a time where I can be watching TV in my bed while the police are being gunned down outside my door.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying – we are, I hope, above this and I can’t, in fact, believe it. I don’t think everyone is capable of killing a man outside a convenience store or opening fire at a protest. Those who are are deranged and mentally unstable and very, very out of touch with reality. But let’s take a moment and remember that while these events, God willing, remain the outliers of our time, the people that carry them out are real people, someone’s son or daughter, someone with pain and fear and self-interest and goals, however misguided they may be. And don’t we have all of those things too?

I don’t want to dilute the horrendousness of these acts or excuse those capable of doing them. But I do want to point out that at the root of these things lies things we are all capable of: sin, elitism, entitlement, hatred, pride. We’re not above those things at all. In fact, we are those things – all of us. We put our interests above others. Put our plans above God’s. Put our emotions, our reactions, our beliefs out there, loudly, and look down on those who oppose. We set ourselves on our own little thrones and reign with fists full of air. Because isn’t that what pride is? Aren’t we all in an elevated position?

I don’t say this to antagonize or add to the sadness of the reality we’re seeing. I think for the most part we’re all doing the best we can. But I invite you to join me in stepping down from my indignance, hopping off my tiny throne, and falling on my face before God’s. Because what we all have in common here – those hurt, those scared, the victims and the villains – is that we’re all guilty. We’re all elitists. We’ve all in an elevated position – devaluing another’s life for the sake of improving our own.

So yes, pray for Dallas. Pray for the black community, the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the law enforcement, the world. Pray for mercy. Pray for safety. Pray for Christ to come soon.

But let’s pray also for ourselves, for humility. That our eyes would be opened to every prideful thought, every moment of elitism, and every place we look down from an elevated position and think someone else’s life matters less than our own.

We’re all guilty. We all need grace. And we won’t find it in a blog or a protest or a hashtag. But amidst chaos and confusion, loss and unimaginable fear, we will find it in God, in Christ who came, who left his rightful throne, who valued our lives over his own.

Unweaving the Rainbow

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I listened to a podcast last night and it wrecked me. It was a conversation between Krista Tippet (whom I love) and a physics professor named Frank Wilczek (whom I knew nothing about) and was titled “Why is the World So Beautiful?” Wilczek recently wrote a book trying to answer the question “does the world embody beautiful ideas?” from a physics perspective. The podcast was a report of his findings.

I was making dinner as I listened, chopping vegetables with the wrong sized knife because all my good ones were dirty. I’d finished dicing two zucchinis, a red onion, and a few bell peppers while half listening to Wilczek discuss an article he’d written for the Wall Street Journal. I started on a tomato and Krista asked him how he finds meaning in the world.

The tomato slipped under the knife and I sliced the hell out of my finger. Like, big time. I missed the first part of Wilczek’s answer due to a slew of expletives that came from a dark (and emphatic) place within me. I held my hands under the sink for a while, letting blood mix with tomato juice as it ran off my fingers, and caught back up as a reference was made to Keats’ “Lamia.”

Specifically, they were discussing this passage:

“Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.”

Keats’ words have since been used as a complaint against science, claiming that it demystifies beauty – that it unweaves the rainbow. That the detailed explanation of a thing dilutes the magic of the mystery.

Wilczek, a firm believer in the beauty of the world and physics and science as a whole, rejects this notion, arguing instead that the colors of the “unwoven rainbow” are all one thing. He based this idea on Newton’s theory of relativity. (I know, stay with me.)

I can’t begin to do this justice so I’ll quote him here:

“So what you learn in the theory of relativity is that when you look at a light beam of a different color, and you’re moving towards it, it gets shifted towards the blue end of the rainbow. So if it was red, it might become yellow, or green, or blue, or ultraviolet if you’re moving fast enough. And if you’re moving away, there’s what’s called the redshift. Things move towards the opposite end of the rainbow. So all these colors can be derived from one of them by moving at an appropriate velocity. So really the existence of one implies the existence of all the others.”

He calls this “science’s poetic response to Keats’ chief complaint,” and then tacks it in with this:

“We humans are poised between microcosm and macrocosm, containing one, sensing the other, comprehending both.”

He said it as nonchalantly as he might take a sip of a coffee and moved quickly on to the next topic. Meanwhile, I threw soaking wet hands over my mouth and immediately started crying.

Just weeks ago I went for a walk with my dearest friend and we discussed this very thing. How bizarre it is that we just have these jobs that we do every day and then eventually we stop doing them and the world keeps going. And how disorienting it is that the things that mattered and hurt and meant so much two years ago are just memories now – and what that says about what matters and hurts and means something today. And how sin seems to carry this same element of distortion, feeling both overwhelmingly big and fleetingly small at the same time. How damn confusing it is that my sin is said to grieve the heart of God and yet has no bearing on his love for me. And what that means for how much weight should it carry.

It’s been one of my hang-ups since I was old enough to have hang-ups – feeling both too big and too small at the same time. I feel constantly suspended between every little thing becoming the biggest ordeal and nothing really mattering at all. I know and trust that God loves me in intricate ways and yet I feel caught in the current of a story so infinitely huge that surely my little world is all nothingness. I feel despairingly overwhelmed with options and grotesquely underwhelmed with meaning. And that lends itself gravely to apathy.

I see the rainbow and I want to unweave it. To dissect it and sterilize its pieces with knowledge. To watch how red bleeds into orange bleeds into yellow.

I see God’s story of redemption for his people and I want to do the same. To see how Tuesdays and conference calls and cleaning my bathroom fits into it all. Much less hospital rooms and divorce and the grey areas of conviction. I want the purpose of the big things to speak meaning into the small ones. And if I’m missing this somewhere please tell me, but it just doesn’t seem to always work that way. And I hate it.

But then I’m slicing open my finger with a paring knife, making dinner for one in an unswept kitchen, and hearing Wilczek argue that you can’t unweave the rainbow – that all colors are one thing – that “the existence of one implies the existence of all the others.” And later, that there is “…a deep unity beneath, supporting the diversity of appearance.”

And amidst tears and blood and a few more expletives (because God always seems to win my most indignant arguments) the analogy humbled me, hard. All purpose is one thing. The existence of His implies the existence of ours in everything we do. The magic of the mystery, a deep unity beneath.

 

 

Less Earnest than You

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Disclaimers:
– I know the pink coloring is awful and offensive – we’re still working on it, stay tuned.
– This post felt a teensy bit cheesy so I thought this pug picture was needed. Enjoy.

I’ve learned about myself over the past ten years or so that I constantly strive to be the least earnest is any given situation. With few exceptions (read: literature, wine, Labrador retrievers) I will almost certainly care about something less than you, or at least pretend to. I will be less tied to our plans, on the off-chance that you cancel, and less invested in our relationship, on the (not so) off-chance that it ends. I will be less earnest than you, and I will make sure that you know.

I’m sure there are some underlying causes here, daddy issues or shitty ex boyfriends or that time my stuffed animal fell out of our moving truck when I was eight. But I pay my therapist so I don’t have to analyze these things myself. Instead, I’ll offer my non-paid for hypothesis: I do it to control the narrative you weave about me. I’ll never be the character in your story who looks like the fool. I’ll never be the one found disappointed or grieving. I’ll never be the one that feels ashamed.

This is a pretty annoying quality about me. Not so conducive to healthy relationships and a bit abrasive to those around me not crippled by this obsessive need to care less. It’s a hindrance. Poet Jack Gilbert writes (beautifully), “We must risk delight. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”

But I don’t do that – I don’t risk delight. Because if things fall through or I get burned, I desperately don’t want to look stupid, or be pitied, or be the one left standing at the altar. I think I’m the furnace.

So when I came across this verse this morning the words jumped up and dug into my throat:

“For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers.” (Hebrews 2:11)

I can’t swallow that. Despite what I know about grace and mercy, I feel (quite earnestly) that Christ should absolutely be ashamed to call me [sister] (edit courtesy of #internationalwomensday*). I’m a major flight risk, and do nothing for his sacred, holy narrative.

And he knows this, better even than I do. He knows I’ll be the one to walk away, the one to leave him at the altar. Because I do, willingly and often.

Yet, he is not ashamed to claim me as his own. And I can’t understand it. To love with such abandon, such earnestness – to risk delight on one so buried in the ashes of the furnace of this world – I don’t get it. Oh that I should ever grasp the weight of that reality.

I don’t know how to move towards that truth, much less how to apply it to my life (or how to wrap up this post). But I know that despite my lack of understanding, truth prevails. I know that the narrative of Christ has already been written, that nothing I do can thwart it or lessen its value. And I know that my flighty, fickle, emotionally stunted self is loved, delighted in, and called [sister]*. And for now that’ll do.

*Do we really need our own day? As half of the world’s population, aren’t our achievements just humanity’s achievements? When is international men’s day?

I wish this poem were mine

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“When I am inside writing,
all I can think about is how I should be outside living.

When I am outside living,
all I can do is notice all there is to write about.

When I read about love, I think I should be out loving.
When I love, I think I need to read more.

I am stumbling in pursuit of grace,
I hunt patience with a vengeance.

On the mornings when my brother’s tired muscles
held to the pillow, my father used to tell him,

For every moment you aren’t playing basketball,
someone else is on the court practicing.

I spend most of my time wondering
if I should be somewhere else.

So I have learned to shape the words thank you
with my first breath each morning, my last breath every night.

When the last breath comes, at least I will know I was thankful
for all the places I was so sure I was not supposed to be.

All those places I made it to,
all the loves I held, all the words I wrote.

And even if it is just for one moment,
I will be exactly where I am supposed to be.”

-Sarah Kay

But One of These Days

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Patty Griffin has been a favorite artist of mine since college. She’s a little blues-y and a little folks-y, equal parts religious and sad in the best way. As an aside, she’s coming to the Grenada next month, so if you’re interested in sitting next to me while I drink wine and cry I can give you my number.

She has a song called “Hurt a Little While” that hits some tender, angsty nerve in me. It’s a touch whiney, but so simple and pretty that it compensates. It makes me cry, and then feel silly for crying, and then immediately start it over and repeat the process. It’s these lines that do it:

“I might need a little walk
I might need a little talk
I might need a little help
For a little while

I might need a little care
All my friends were there
I might need a little love
For a little while

I might feel a little weary
I might need a new theory
I might feel a little bad
For a little while

But one of these days”

It follows with a cheesy line about shining or smiling or something but you can get past that. You’ll probably still be hung up on “I might feel a little weary, I might need a new theory” to notice.


It’s been a long year – a long season of asking God to show up and getting silence. I don’t know how to write about that yet but I bet phrases like “questioning God’s character”, “prone to wander”, and “tequila shots” would show up, possibly in that order.

In a tiny, quiet moment last week that silence seemed to lift a little. I don’t yet know how to write about that either. Thankfully others do:

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“I know that it might be better for you to come out from under your might-have-been’s, into the winds of the world.” – East of Eden, Steinbeck

“More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ.” – Philippians 3:8

As Christians we love stories of triumph. We love the testimony of a dark, wayward season when followed by the words “But God.” We love the hope that these stories bring, the promise of overcoming whatever chaos and confusion we’re feeling at the moment. We love to talk about redemption and rainbows – and we should, because they are real and they remind us of things that are true.

But I fear that we celebrate the rainbow at the expense of remembering the flood. God flooded the whole damn earth. And that’s just as much a part of the story.

I wonder if we rush too quickly to the “But God”, as if the words that precede it carry less weight. If the Lord allows us to walk through seasons of silence then they’re just as important as the moment he speaks back up. We have to talk more about the flood, and sit in the discomfort of the might-have-been’s, the loss of all things, the “where the fuck are you?” prayers that last days or weeks or months.

I wonder if our rhetoric is betraying us. As if “But God” is a prerequisite for talking about the silence.

Of course this is all a bit hypocritical because I don’t know how to talk about any of it. But being in the silence, or maybe at the very tail end of it, I’m glad somebody else has the words.

“I might feel a little weary
I might need a new theory
I might feel a little bad
For a little while

But one of these days”

Bloodlining

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I got a new tattoo recently. I think I may have mentioned it a few posts ago. It’s a fig tree – based on this quote from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

I get teary every time I read it. Typing apparently is no different.

The “figs” she mentions are specific to her life, of course. And mine would be quite different. But the sentiment is the same. And is inked into me body and soul.

My tattoo artist’s name is Matt. He’s my age and covered in tattoos and seems to laugh at almost everything. I’d like to sound a lot cooler than I am and say that it didn’t really hurt and I didn’t instantly think about backing out when we started, but neither are true. He did the outline as I looked away and tried really hard not to cry. Then he laughed and said, “Ok, now we’ll add the ink.”

I thought he was joking. One of those cheesy trade jokes they pull on people. Like my dentist asking invariably for the past 26 years if I want my toothpaste flavored mint, berry, or roadkill. I don’t remember this from my other two tattoos – maybe they weren’t big enough or I blocked it out like a mom does the pains of childbirth – but as he wiped off the little blood already pooling I saw he wasn’t kidding. There was no ink in that needle. No branches or figs to speak of. Just the smooth patch of forearm he’d had to shave before we started in one of my more humbling moments.

“So that was for nothing?”

He laughed again. “Nah, that was the hardest part.”

He explained to me that outlining the image without any ink gave him a roadmap for the rest of the tattoo. The skin would get irritated and red and swell up a little, marking exactly where to fill in or shade without the appearance of an actual outline.

“Keeps the integrity of the art,” he said. The artist marking his way. They call it bloodlining. And its aptly named.

The rest of the tattoo was just as painful. I tried to distract myself by making conversation or gripping the side of the chair as inconspicuously as possible. Still, it hurt like hell. But felt increasingly more worth it as I saw the tree coming to life – the branches starting to stretch across my veins and the figs beginning to form. He’d drag the needle right to the edge of that bloodline and then back again. And though it was excruciating, it ended up (I think) beautiful.

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This year has been hell for me. There’s been a ton of change, most of it unwanted, and I don’t think I’ve handled it very well. My therapist termed it “adjustment disorder with depression” which makes me feel insecure in all possible ways. Another one of my more humbling moments. But more than anything, it’s been a huge strain on my faith. And not in the “I’m just in a spiritual desert but I’m sure it will pass while I read Jen Hatmaker” sort of way. More like, “this is too damn much and I’m out.” It’s been exhausting. And at the risk of sounding melodramatic, excruciating.

The last month or so has felt a little different. The anger has softened some, for which I’m grateful. I think I may be coming to the end of my temper tantrum, despite my own best efforts, and I’m feeling a bit more hopeful. So when Matt said that – that the hardest part was over, though there was nothing to show for it – it hit me in the throat.

Pain seems so much more bearable when its merit is obvious. Relationships that end for good reason or closed doors that lead (quickly) to open ones. It’s so much easier to trust the needle when the purpose is clear, when the pain seems worth it, when it leaves a fat purple fig in its wake.

Not so when it seems meaningless. Or arbitrary. Flippant, even. Not so when it feels like you’re bleeding for nothing.

Unless it isn’t for nothing. Unless it’s just the hardest part. Unless it’s the artist marking his way. Unless it’s bloodlining.

I see the flaws in this metaphor. Namely in comparing my tattoo artist to God or suggesting that pain without apparent reason is always drawn by the purposeful hand of God. The latter is a theological debate I just don’t have the energy for this morning.

But still, the sentiment is the same. And is inked into me body and soul.