Making Space for Healing

During the quarantine of ‘20 we cleared out two crawl spaces, the attic and the shed. We found a lot of things we had forgotten; most of it went to Goodwill, a little to the landfill, a few items went back into storage, and fewer still returned to the land of the living. It was therapeutic, getting rid of useless stuff in the attic, but the most practical thing we cleared out was the shed. We use the shed for storing bikes and yard tools and other odds and ends. It took work to sort it all out and reimagine how to use the space, but now that it’s done, it’s easier to get to the useful and necessary things for everyday life.

About nine years into the cycle of depression and anxiety that stole so much of my life, I came to the conclusion that I would not get better unless I made space for healing. I needed breathing room, or I would drown. I needed to reimagine my life; to see life without depression and anxiety as its defining characteristics. This meant leaving my job and accepting a season in which healing was the priority. It meant moving one of the biggest things in the shed so that everything else moved.

Much of the way we are told to treat depression is adding something to our lives; a pill, a counselor, a diet, an exercise regime. Those things may have their merits, but they can also be a matter of working around stuff that needs to move in order for us to live well, and to get healthy. We might need to remove and reorder things rather than adding things. We may just need space to heal.

Depression has gravity. It draws things into our lives we don’t necessarily want or need. The longer depression remains in our lives the more it sets up its own miniature solar system of misery. People and tasks, attitudes and habits begin to orbit around the depression. When this continues for a long period of time, we are dehumanized; we become depressed people; eventually we become depression itself. This is part of the disease and plays a role in perpetuating it. Our vocabulary changes. Our countenance changes. Our bodies change. We need to break up the system. We need to reimagine our lives and make space to change and heal.

When I worked as an intelligence officer in the navy. I met a civilian who worked with the tech side of our organization. He was a nice guy and once in a while we’d chat. One day he told me he didn’t like his job very much but it paid the bills, and he had a lot of family obligations with college aged kids, and he had a mortgage and… a shed full of stuff. I asked him what he really liked to do. He told me that even though he had no experience in medicine, he thought he’d like to be a doctor. While he was talking it hit me – why did he have to keep doing life this way? I blurted out “why don’t you quit your job, apply to school, and become a physician’s assistant?” It wasn’t premeditated. It just came out. I remember the look on his face. There was this shadow of doubt and then I said something like “why not just look at it as a possibility? Think about it differently. It’s your life after all.” Not long after that I transferred to a new command and lost track of the man.

A couple years later I went back to my old office and I ran into him. He was a different man. His countenance was different. His physical energy was different. Before I could ask him about the change, he told me he was about to finish up PA school. He said that after our talk he went home and discussed the possibility with his family and they were for it. The process had been tough on them and had caused some disruptions in their lives, but they’d gotten through it. He was so thankful and insistent on praising me that it felt like too much. It was almost embarrassing. I hadn’t done anything. But as I think back on it now, I see that it was a big deal. He had never taken the time to reimagine his life. He had never given himself the space for things to change. All it took was a suggestion. It made all the difference in the world. When he was willing to move the one big thing – his job – everything changed.

I don’t advocate making change for change sake. If you are fairly functional you may not need to move the big things. You may be able to improve your life with less drastic measures. But if you are dealing with treatment resistant depression, you need to make space for healing. You need to create a season in which healing is the priority. You need to make a big change to break up the depressive center of gravity in your life.

Do you want to get better? Are you sure? What seems so big that you won’t consider moving it? I left my job and took a significant pay cut. I changed the center point of my community and had to alter the way I related to most of my friends. I made some people mad and disappointed others. Everything shifted, but now I know how to get to the essentials without stumbling over stuff. There is room to breathe.

Take some time to think about your life. Do you have to keep doing the job that is sucking your life away? Do you have to live in the place you don’t like? What if you didn’t have to make the same amount of money? It helps to think of space to heal as a season for healing. Maybe you love your job but it stresses you out and keeps the shed too full for other things. What if you stepped away for a year or two? And what if you moved to another place for a season? Birds migrate, we can too. Maybe all you need to do is reimagine your life and it will be enough to break you loose from depression’s gravity. Go ahead and dream it. Live anywhere and do anything. Allow yourself the freedom to be free.

We can change. We can be healed. You can reimagine your life. It will cost others and you will need others to help you, but depression is already costing others around you and asking others to help us is ok. You can ask me. I’d love to help you. I bet there are folks already in your life who will help too. Let’s do it. Let’s clean out the shed and make space to heal. It helped me a lot and it can help you.

A Bad Sign for Your Relationships (and what to do about it)

I have several relationships that exist across wide gaps in time and distance.  Friends who live in other states I only get to see a few times each year, and with whom I don’t maintain regular contact (ie we don’t email, Face Book, text, Skype, facetime, etc, frequently or at all).  These relationships exist with a lot of empty space, yet the minute I am together with these people I feel as if I’ve never missed a beat.  We pick up right where we left off and keep going.  Actually we have grown in friendship even without regular communication.  But there are other relationships I have that a week without communication creates something dark.  Its as if the lack of contact creates more distance.  I notice that I fill up the empty space in some relationships with good thoughts and others I fill up with negative thoughts.  Some people don’t call me for 3 months and when I think of them I smile and say, “Wow, I bet Joe is super busy. I should probably check up on him.”  In the other kind of relationship three days go by, and I think of them and say “Wow, what’s Joe’s problem?  I must have made him angry about something.”

It is a bad sign for a relationship when you start filling up the empty spaces with negative thoughts.  Every time you get back in contact with a person in this kind of relationship, you have to expend time and effort checking to see if your negative thoughts were right.  That is time and effort you can’t use to grow the relationship.  Since most of us don’t have huge excess of time and energy, the time and energy lost to the dark space is more than we 604891have to give.  Instead of digging out all the nastiness we pour into the empty space and getting rid of it, we don’t deal with it all.  It takes too much effort.  It accumulates.  The next time we are disconnected from the person we throw a little more negativity into the empty space and it doesn’t get cleaned out.  Like barnacles on a ship, this stuff puts a drag on our relationships.  Sometimes you are right about why your wife didn’t call you while she was away on the business trip.  She was mad about an unresolved conflict over the kids.  Sometimes your friend did get your texts and ignored them because your needs weren’t very important to them at the time.  Add enough “true” situations where your negative thoughts are accurate, and it gets easier to throw even more negativity into the next time there is empty space in the relationship.

This is a mess.  It is full of guilt and shame, presumption and anger and self-righteousness and hurt.  It is the exact opposite of the easy, fulfilling and life-giving kind of relationships we treasure.  If you continue pouring negative thoughts into the empty space, the relationship will break down.  You’ll have the occasional “come to Jesus” meetings where months worth of junk gets pulled out of the dark and you start over again, but those take a lot of effort, and after you’ve done it enough you’ll stop having them.  You will be worn out.  Marriages like this don’t last.  Parents and children like this drift apart and only connect in the mandatory meetings of life.  Friendships cool and die out.

What’s the answer?  Well you could try thought replacement.  Every time a negative thought tries to come into the empty space just squash it.  That is fine if you are strong and consistent.  But it also wears you out and often feels false.  There are some really negative things that come into our relationships and it seems a bad idea to pretend they don’t exist. The root of negativity is the thing we need to get rid of.  How can we find it?  Well what is at the core of those other kind of relationships where empty space gets filled with positive thoughts?  That must be the thing we need to bring into all our relationships.  The thing is called grace.  Grace allows me to think of you in the highest light.  A grace-based relationship is the opposite of a works based relationship.  It means I’ve decided to love you for who you are, not for anything you do.  I make no claims upon what you owe me; not a phone call or text or a birthday card.  If any of those things are missing it has not changed the foundation of our relationship AT ALL.  But in works based relationships, the exchange of goods and services is the basis of how I relate to you and when you or I are behind in payment our relationship foundation cracks and shifts.  I’m not sure who I am any more or who you are.  Am I the one behind in payment?  Have you ever owed money to someone and not been able to pay them back?  It isn’t easy to come around them is it?  You might start avoiding them.  If you see them talking to someone you may assume they are talking about what a no load you are.  This is what a works based relationship looks like.

How do I get grace into my relationships?  Foremost, grace is a decision.  You must decide your relationships are not going to be based upon works.  You have to say that your friends, lovers, and children owe you nothing.  Then you have to put this into practice.  No matter what happens you have to keep a zero balance sheet.  My husband owes me nothing.  My daughter owes me nothing.  My best friend owes me nothing.  Sound easy?  No, it is pretty hard.  But it is the way to go if you want lasting and healthy relationships.  Fortunately the gospel gives us a huge resource we can incorporate into all our relationships if we accept it.  Jesus told a story about two sons.  The younger asked for his inheritance and spent it in a wild extended party until he ended up eating out of a pig trough.  The older keep working at home tending the father’s farm.  When the younger came home, asking to just become a hired hand, the father not only received him back, he put a ring on his finger and a robe on his back and threw a party for his lost son.  The older brother got angry at this and complained to the father.  One of the things the older brother says to his dad is basically, “I’ve never done anything but work and do your will and yet you throw a party for this horrible son of yours…while you’ve never done anything for me.  What’s wrong with this picture???”  The older son had a relationship with his father based hawala-money-changing-handson work.  I do for him and I should expect X out of you.  The younger son had a relationship of grace with his father.  I should only be a servant, yet you call me a son.  If you notice in the story, the father takes the same position toward both sons.  He stands ready to give them what they don’t deserve.  The older prodigal son couldn’t possibly work hard enough to earn what the father offers him – yet the father says to him “all I have is yours.”  Wow!  He gives up everything for the older son.  Grace.  And the father offers the younger son his place in the family even though the younger son, by asking for his inheritance before his father was even dead was saying, “I’m outa here pops, you can drop dead for all I care.”  Grace.

How can you and I change the basis of all of our relationships at once?  Get some perspective.  The gospel is God being in relationship with you regardless of what you do.  Wish him dead and just want his stuff?  He doesn’t change his mind about you.  He will still call you son or daughter.  Think you are pleasing him and earning your keep by all your hard work even though you couldn’t know your left from your right unless he gave you air to breathe?  He doesn’t change his mind about you.  He will still invite you to come in out of the field of works you’ve made for yourself.  At what cost does God extend his good thoughts about us?  How can he afford to fill up the empty space with good will towards us when we are so obviously messed up?  He gave up his son.  He let Jesus do all the work of the older brother and make up for the inheritance the younger brother blew with prostitutes.  If you and I see the grace God extends to us, it puts our grace in perspective.  It shrinks the burden.  When I want to think ill of you the gospel reminds me that God thinks well of me when I don’t deserve it.  It also reminds me that God is thinking well of you too.  The cross is the evidence of how God feels about you and me. Grace.  It is fresh air.  I have so much I have plenty to spare.  Now I can give it to you and I still haven’t lost any of God’s infinite supply.  No wonder Paul opened so many of his letters with “Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ.”  He was filling in all the empty space of every relationship in and around the church with the most positive thing he could think of.  Grace and peace to you.  Give this to all your relationships in the name of Jesus Christ.