Depression & Emotional Bandwidth

For many years we hosted Chinese students who lived with us while going to high school in the States. We seem to be a family that can adapt to having people in our home and, for the most part, it did not create disturbances in the way we lived. We just treated them like they were our kids and they treated us with respect. Two of them grew to be what we now call our “Chinese sons.” We’ve been to China with them and met their families and while they are now living in other towns they often come home to be with us. We love them. Our kids love them. They count them as brothers. We made room for them in our lives. And there was more room.

When my daughter was born I discovered many things, but the most profound was the expansion of my Grinchy heart. I knew I loved my wife and family, but the first time I saw my little girl I realized there was a new dimension to love I’d never known even though I’d seen it playing out in others all my life. I thought I knew it but then I experienced it. It was like seeing triangles all your life and suddenly discovering they were just sides of a pyramid. My heart could do things I didn’t know it could do.

A few years later we decided to add another baby, but not before we talked long and hard about it. We were so in love with our little girl. Would we be able to love another person this way? I had my doubts. It really troubled me. What if bringing another baby into our lives meant we didn’t love either one the way we loved the first? We talked with people who had already done it and they all said the same thing: you don’t understand it now, but you will be able to love them both with your whole heart. I admit I wasn’t fully convinced, but being forearmed with the expanding heart experience from having our daughter, I agreed to try it again. And again my heart surprised me. Love surprised me. We loved our son the same way we love our daughter; comprehensively and profoundly. I had to change my paradigm again. It seemed the triangle wasn’t just a pyramid; that my heart was more like a paper football made of a very large piece of paper and it could keep unfolding – maybe infinitely. There was more room.

During this time I began teaching a Sunday School class. It was only a little group of people to start, maybe eight of us. Each week I noticed this feeling inside me that started to grow. I didn’t know these people very well but the feeling was like an echo of the love I felt for my family. The class grew and visitors began to come and I found myself telling them I loved them. The words just came out of my mouth without much thought. I got some strange looks but I couldn’t help myself. Soon I began to realize I really did love these complete strangers. Some of them became people I knew intimately but that happened later. My heart was doing that thing again; unfolding and making room for more and more people. There was more room.

I’m betting that a lot of people understand this love thing better and more naturally than I do. My wife is more wired to love first and ask questions later. I’m more cautious and contemplative. But even if you don’t love many people I bet you feel a desire for it. We feel the desire to love and be loved and we sense the possibility. It’s in us. There is a huge emotional bandwidth for love; it might be infinite. Test it out and be honest: can you imagine a scenario where you love too many people? Would you ever be able to tell someone “I’ve got so many people who genuinely love me, I just can’t take another”? No. We are wired for lots of love.

It took me a long time to see the other side of this emotional bandwidth thing. Feeling bad about people has the opposite affect on our hearts. I mean exactly what I say. It’s not just hating people that goes to work on our hearts. It is holding people in a place inside us marked “this space reserved for idiots.” This may not be too problematic for those who are relatively emotionally healthy, but it is deadly in people with depression and anxiety. It can choke off emotional bandwidth to the point that we can’t function.

One of our Chinese students who lived with us was a big time online gamer. It usually wasn’t a problem, but at nights when we tried to stream movies and he was running his games, it sucked up enough of our WiFi bandwidth that every five minutes we got the spinning circle of death buffering thing. It made me very unhappy. It’s no fun trying to watch a movie in three minute segments. It ruins the whole show. Feeling bad about people can do this to us.

Just as our hearts seem to be created for infinite love, just a little criticism, ill will, judgment and – drum roll please – CONDESCENSION – is like one of those tiny little pellet sponges you can get at the Dollar Tree for your kids. Drop it in some water and sproing! It’s a big ole T-Rex. We are just not made for the stuff. Another test: isn’t it true that you can remember a slight against you longer than you remember a compliment? Isn’t it more likely for you to tell a friend that someone was rude to you today than to tell them someone did you a courtesy? Be honest. What’s more common?

Emotionally healthy people are not bitter people. It could be that the seeds to our depression and anxiety are sown by others but watered by us. If this becomes a habit we can end up with a whole prison block of people we keep in our hearts that we feel bad about. And we have to house them and feed them and make sure they don’t escape. It’s exhausting. It steals emotional bandwidth. It is the opposite of adding more people we love. There is not more room. I really believe there is no room at all for these negative feelings. Even one is one too many.

Part of my recovery has been the rejection of bad feelings toward anyone or anything. I became aware of the need to clear out the prison; release the captives and quit being the judge, jury, and executioner for those who offend me. I discovered it took too much energy; it was contributing to me beginning to buffer in real life. isn’t that what depression and anxiety feel like? Buffering – not present in our own present. Spinning wheel of death.

I have a suggestion for you. I would take this to the extreme. I would not allow a single bad feeling about anyone to take up space in my heart. And I mean it. Not a politician. Not a celebrity. Not a past lover. Not a current boss. Not a sports person. None. No one. Not a single one is worth me losing my emotional bandwidth. This takes practice. I realized I’d grown so used to harboring bad feelings about certain people that they were confined in maximum security. It took me a while to even find the keys to unlock the cell doors. But little by little I emptied the jail. And you know what? It wasn’t the bad guys who got free, it was me. Try it. Depression and anxiety feel bad enough, jettison the unneeded bad from your heart. And if you want to accelerate the process try something else: love a stranger. Love someone who has no way to give you anything in exchange. You don’t have to do something large. You don’t even have to talk with anyone to start loving them. How about this: think about how nobody really knows the deep pain inside you and how they probably think you are doing ok but you’re not. Now look at the next stranger you see and consider that they might very well be feeling like you do. Let your heart feel for them what you’d like someone to feel for you. Healing happens a little unfolding at a time in little moments that aren’t far away. You can do it. We can do it.

Gospel and the Art of Shark Tooth Hunting

There was a book someone told me to read.  It was cool they said.  Enlightening.  Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I read it.  I don’t remember it.  I guess it didn’t enlighten me.  That is probably more a statement about me than the book.  Lots of people read it and found it helpful.  I couldn’t relate.  The journey of the book interested me, but the Zen and the motorcycles didn’t.  I use technology that I don’t understand.  And I don’t want to understand it.  I want it to work.  I don’t want to think about how this computer is capturing these key strokes and saving my thoughts in bits and bytes.  And the Zen feels the same to me.  Too much thinking in little bits and bytes that run down rabbit trails and at the end seem so breathtakingly insignificant or worse, unintelligible.  The Zen felt inaccessible to me, like the carburetor on the motorcycle laid out in tiny pieces that only the initiated can see and put together.

I am a Christian and a pastor.  I like thinking but I’ve found Saint Paul’s warning that “knowledge puffs up” to be an occupational hazard and a cultural epidemic.  Pirsig was writing in a time when technology seemed to be overtaking us, endangering us with becoming functions, pieces of machinery in a godless mechanical universe grinding along with an unseeing merciless drumbeat.  My time is overtaken with information.  We are in danger of becoming receptacles of pieces of information.  Our drumbeat is godless and merciless too.  We are googled and googling. We are becoming what we eat, and we eat information.  We are can’t be disconnected from the the pipeline of knowledge or we might cease to exist.  We are social media.  Incoming and outgoing.  The puffing up chokes out life.  Saint Paul contrasted knowledge with love.  “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up.”  Living is love.  Love is living.

I noticed how much the puffing up was killing me.  Reducing me to posts and likes and comments and followers.  I noticed how loveless it felt.  I deleted my Facebook account FullSizeRender (3)without telling anyone.  No fanfare.  No goodbye sweet world.  Just deleted it.  My real world loving living friends asked me where I went.  None of the thousand friends outside of them has tried to find me.  I’m gone and they don’t notice it.  Why should they?  We don’t love each other.  We don’t live together.  We don’t miss each other.  I feel good.  I feel better.  Not smug or superior, just better.

I am loving the people in my real world more now.  I am practicing the gospel which is not knowledge but flesh and spirit.  I am practicing sabbath which is the art of giving up being God and affirming I can disconnect and not shrivel up and die.  And I’m hunting shark teeth which is pursuing something of value because I love it and not because I gain anything from it.  By these acts I am becoming myself and this is what God promises to make me.

Does Your Spouse Admire You Enough?

download (2)Who do you admire?  What if they were to call you and ask to have lunch this week?  Would you rearrange your schedule to meet them?  Would your priorities stack up differently?  What would it do to you if you discovered they admired you?  That they rearranged their whole schedule to spend time with you?  It would radically change the way you looked at yourself to discover you were admired by the admirable.

Many of us forget that our spouses admired us so much that they rescheduled their whole lives around us – that’s called marriage.  Your spouse does admire you that much.  How does it feel?  Fulfilling?  Sometimes it is.  Sometimes the spouse we admire admires us and makes us feel so full we can’t imagine being more full.  But this doesn’t always work and it never lasts.  We need more admiration than anyone is capable of giving, even if that person gave us the promise of a lifetime.  We need more. Our spouse needs more.

At the root of the word admire is the an old Latin word meaning “miracle.”  There was a time we thought it was miraculous to have the admiration of our spouse.  I thought it was at the time.  And still do most days.  But there is something more miraculous about the story of the gospel, and it carries both me and my wife when we don’t have enough admiration for each other.  Here is the most admirable person who ever lived making the promise of not just one lifetime given to us, but an eternal lifetime given to us.  Bending the schedule of eternity around me. When I see this – really see it for what it is – I am admired enough to last when my spouse doesn’t admire me, or just as significantly, when I don’t admire myself anymore.  There is a way through.  There is a way up.  Does my spouse admire me enough?  No.  But miraculously, God does.

admiration (n.) early 15c., “wonder,” from Middle French admiration (14c.) or directly from Latin admirationem (nominative admiratio) “a wondering at, admiration,” noun of state from past participle stem of admirari “admire,” from ad- “at” (see ad-) + mirari “to wonder,” from mirus “wonderful” (see miracle). The sense has weakened steadily since 16c.

How to Be Moved

resonate (‘rezu`neyt)
from Latin [re – again, sonare – to sound]ripples

Years ago my office was in West Ghent.   It was on a street dividing the industrial part of the borough from the residential part.  There was a lot of traffic.  Big trucks making deliveries to the shipyard or coming from the coal piers.  One day a truck sat idling near my front door.  I didn’t notice it immediately, but the awareness of it’s presence emerged into my consciousness.  It’s dull rumble stirred the surface of my coffee.  I felt the sound in my chest.  It was not unpleasant.  A deep and steady bass.  I resonated.  The truck’s movement was partially my own movement.   I was not touching the truck, but the truck was touching me. 

We are made to resonate when God speaks, and He is always speaking.  God’s voice is a deep steady bass line.  Sometimes it stirs things around us and touches them before it touches us.  If you haven’t heard Him yet, the best way is to be still.  Stop your own movement so that you can be moved.  He has something to say to you.  He isn’t playing hide and come seek with you.  He split time open to make the way to your chest; to make the way for you to resonate with His words.  He is saying something simple.  He is saying He loves you.  That’s it.  He is confident in this one message.  The power in it, the resonance of it.  A child just out of the womb has no mental capacity to comprehend words and yet he is stilled by the sound of his mother.  He was formed together with her.  He was connected to her.  He knows what cannot be known, but can only be felt.  She says ‘I love you.’  He resonates.  We were formed together with God, but  we are born disconnected.  Nevertheless, He is saying ‘I love you.’  It is beyond all knowledge, but you and I resonate.  If you quit holding onto your life so hard and ease your grip you’d start to move naturally toward His voice.  You can be touched by God.  He made you that way.  Let yourself feel the love of God.

A Working Definition of Love

There are so many ways to look at love because it is a transfinite concept.  It belongs here and now but we sense it is not contained in space and time.  Love is both static and dynamic.  Love is unreachably distant and compelling and it is utterly accessible and simple.  The Bible says God is love.  This explains a lot.  Why it is so…mystically normal.  I add this thought about love because I’ve looked at God for a long time and I’ve found a working definition of love.  In other words, in light of who God is, what God says, and what God does, this definition of love works for me.  It helps me to glorify God.

Love = an absolute commitment to the absolute best interests of someone or something other than the self.