My Tens of Thousands

I’m an observant person. I’m introspective and extrapolative. I spend a lot of time thinking about how the world really is, and how that information should affect my decisions. I call this careful consideration my “governing intellect” — not that it does a ton of governing. It ends up being more a source of guilt (that I don’t follow my reason) than a helpful tutor. But still, I sometimes heed its advice — and sometimes to my own detriment.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, the Lord said to my governing intellect, “Come and sit by my side.” I’m not a proud man. I went and I sat. The man had some interesting things to say.

I have always lived a charmed life. This has manifested in mundane ways (a happy, prosperous family environment, an upbringing with a strong emphasis on education, and an inborn talent with the written word), and in ways mystical (I’ve never lost real money in a game of poker).

I’ve long recognized this effect in my life, and rarely taken it for granted. I remember reading the Odyssey early in high school and recognizing an easy familiarity with Odysseus, beloved of Athene. He was clever and careful, but even so, he had help. Things ever fell his way. So also with me.

In our own lore there’s another like him, and I’ve also often compared myself to King David. Chosen and blessed, set apart to do great things, I had nothing to fear from even the mightiest of enemies. That became my refrain. I can’t count the times I’ve whispered under my breath, “Lord, let me pass unseen through the camp of my enemies.”

He took me aside recently, though, and reprimanded me. That has been too much my attitude. When a university-level teaching job fell into my lap — money we sorely needed and an opportunity many people invest years of their lives just to apply for — I spent days and weeks and months just worrying, just hoping that I could survive. I just wanted to get through it, hopefully without drawing any attention to myself, and make it to December in one piece.

Oh humble yes, he said, but humble son of God!

There is so much more to David than the slinking thief, discreetly hemming his king’s old cape. An heir is made not just to survive, but to reign. I’ve spent years hiding in my dirty cave, with nary an adversary on the plains below. Anointed and appointed, spending all my gracious charms on nervous getting by, when my role is so much greater. I should be capturing cities to swell my empire. I should be conquering to preserve my name, and to lift up the names of my sons. I’ve spent long enough as a shepherd, I should long since have become a king.

That failing is on me. The opportunities to rise up are always there — served up to me on royal finery, and squandered in my timidity even as I proclaim that I’m trembling in fear of the Parable of the Talents. The Lord said to my governing intellect, “Come and sit by my side, and we’ll make cautious reason our footstool, because there are far more interesting things going on than your boring old reality.”

I can’t wait to see my Jerusalem.

Sinful Saint (a poem)

I’ve heard you —
full of spirit, right with God —
In reverence and deep humility
Say, “I am just a sinful child
Made clean by God’s good love.”

I’ve heard you whisper hope to hurt
and help to those in need.
I’ve seen you shine
and shape the world
with faith.

But life is long
and comfort short
and sharp the Tempter’s sting.
So time to time you’ll trip and fall,
or turn and walk away.
Time to time you’ll come to earth
and leave Heaven behind.
Time to time you’ll gutter
let your flame almost go out.
And then you tremble, full of fear so far from God.

But I am not afraid.
I’m not ashamed, I’m not surprised.
From time to time you fall, as do we all.
But nothing you could do —
no angry word, no selfish choice, no foolish indiscretion —
There’s nothing in your power to make untrue
The words you knew with confidence before.
From time to time, from day to day,
No matter where along your way
The best and worst you’ll ever say
Is “I am just a sinful child
Made clean by God’s good love.”

Don’t be surprised. Don’t be ashamed.
Don’t ever be afraid.
Your God forgives, and that is why you call him Lord.

Mission Report: British Isles Campaign

I always blush and give a little apology when I write a blog post four or five days late. The lag on this one comes remarkably close to a true decade.

The summer after our Sophomore year at OC, T– and I went to the British Isles on a mission campaign led by Dr. John Maple. I mentioned it in passing the other day, because a chance name on Facebook brought back memories of it, but I’ve had a deluge of such chances lately. I keep coming across unexpected recollections of that time, and I finally stopped to think about it.

I don’t have a great memory of my personal history. That’s why I keep such excruciatingly detailed logs of my activity here, because even going back and reading through a page of my life last year floods me with startling memory. Going back two years or three without that assistance is a real stretch, so my college days — and a mission trip nine years in the past — is mostly nothing but a blur.

Sometimes things fall into place, though, and the veil is parted, and as that moment in time swam into view recently, I encountered insight with an unexpected shock. There’s something I’d never realized before. When I went to Scotland, I didn’t know I had social anxiety.

Social Anxiety
I talk about social anxiety sometimes, but not much. I’ve been told I hide it well, but I’ve been working hard at that for six or seven years now, so that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The anxiety is there, though, and it’s been there…pretty close to all my life. Maybe not in elementary school — at least, not early on — but it was well and truly in place by the time I got to middle school. I used to call myself “anti-social” because I thought it sounded cooler than “shy.” But I wasn’t really either one. I’ve always craved relationships. I make relationships work, and I depend on them, but I’m no good at socializing. Interacting with people on a casual level makes me sick. Really, actually, everyday sick. Low-grade anxiety feels like having the flu. A full-on anxiety attack feels so bad it’s commonly confused with a heart attack. I get these things from small talk.

That’s the difference between “shy” and social anxiety. And it’s something I didn’t really grasp when I was a kid, because a kid doesn’t have any reference point but his own experience. I got up into college and started encountering a lot more people with a lot of different life experiences, and I started to get a clue. I graduated and got a real job and learned about having to interact with people on a casual level day in and day out — and my paycheck depending on it — and that’s where I really discovered the truth about myself. These days I’ve got some good barriers and I’ve got some coping mechanisms, so I can survive in the workforce. But I learned that all two or three years too late.

The Mission Trip
We went to Britain for six weeks. Dr. Maple invited me personally, and I was ecstatic about the opportunity. My favorite books growing up were The Hobbit and Ivanhoe and The Three Musketeers (and, believe it or not, one of the sequels to The Three Musketeers takes place almost exclusively in England, so that counts!). I couldn’t wait to go.

Before we could do that we had the planning sessions, though, and I met the other missionaries we’d be working with. We had meetings every few weeks for months, and I never really enjoyed those. I kept looking for excuses to skip them, but if we passed a certain number of absences we got kicked off the campaign, so I managed to show up. Then we flew over to London — and that was my first international flight — and of course that was draining. But we got in early in the morning on a Friday and Dr. Maple didn’t want us all crushed by jetlag for a week so he insisted on keeping us all awake until sunset. We went to the British museum and had lunch in town and went to Something-or-Other Square (which is famous) and did a bunch of shopping and sightseeing, and we were all miserable by mid-afternoon. He finally set us loose on the town after dinner, and I remember I went to see Les Miserables at a little theater just to grab a seat in the back row and snooze in the dark. That was one of the happiest moments on my trip.

We went out to the site of our first VBS Saturday, got set up and went over our plans for the week, and on Sunday morning I showed up at church and Dr. Maple told me I’d be helping out with a skit during the morning lesson. I’d be wearing robes and performing a children’s play in front of the whole congregation. I learned this at eight and went on stage at nine. I was sick for the rest of the day.

That’s really how my whole trip went. I was hanging out with these awesome kids, experiencing my first visit to places I’d dreamed of all my life, and I hated it. I hated every minute of it. I hated showing up to teach classes, I hated getting together for Dr. Maple’s stupid devotionals, I hated meeting with the other missionaries to discuss class schedules, I really hated going out to dinner at the local church members’ houses….

I was on a mission trip. I was there to do God’s work, and I was surrounded by enthusiastic, happy, encouraging people. And the whole time I felt sick. I was tired, I was frequently depressed, and all I wanted to do, pretty much every minute of every day, was go off to my room, lock everyone else out (because I was generally sharing a room with one of the other missionaries and ten to twelve elementary-school boys), and just hide in the dark, alone, and try to catch my breath.

I don’t talk much about social anxiety and when I do, I don’t get a lot of sympathy. That’s fine. I understand. But the real tragedy of this memory is that, back then, I didn’t know. I didn’t understand that I was sick. All I knew was that this should be the most amazing, uplifting experience of my life, and I detested it. I couldn’t find any excuse other than my own weakness, so I spent more and more of my time hating myself. It astonishes me to read my writing from the time before that, to remember just how much I considered myself a real holy warrior, a dedicated disciple out to fix the world with words and Truth. I went to England, took a real stab at it, and learned that it made me miserable.

That broke my faith. Not…it didn’t hurt my belief in God. It just shattered my belief in me. I would sit in the corner — while everyone else laughed and joked over paper cups of punch and cheap cookies — I would sit in the corner and hope nobody tried to talk to me, and call myself monster. I spent most of six weeks doing that.

I can manufacture fond memories of the things I should have enjoyed while I was there, but the three times I was really, truly happy, I was alone. I remember those stolen hours in the playhouse on our first day in London. I remember the weekend between camp sessions when we got to go stay with my Uncle Perry and his family, and even though I was never too close to them it felt like sweet sanctuary compared to the chaos of church camp. And then I remember an afternoon at Saint Andrews.

I went off alone. T– went browsing in the town’s little shops, and I wandered away, down to the seaside, and sat by myself on the sand, looking out over the cold North Sea. I was there for hours, just sitting by myself, and then I wandered up to the old ruined abbey and sat among the graves for a while, enjoying that, too, until T– came and found me. And I smiled for her, and hugged her, and she showed me the headstones so old all markings were obliterated, and the path up to the belltower she’d found, and it was fascinating, but it was work. Even as I smiled for her, I felt that day’s peace slipping away. The three moments I really felt happy, over the space of six weeks, were moments when I was alone.

Looking Back
Knowing what I know now, there’s nothing wrong with that. Knowing what I know now, I could have carved out a lot more of those moments and felt a lot less selfish about them. I could have said no to the game of kickball. I could have found a quiet spot instead of seeking out the quiet kid who needed to be talked with, because that’s what I needed to do my job. At the time it just felt like weakness, and selfishness, and I never spoke up.

I wish I had known. I don’t bother wishing I were free from social anxiety, because I think a lot of what makes me special has grown from the quiet time alone that I’ve sought, throughout the years. But I wish I had known already what it was, and what it meant. Lacking that, I wish I hadn’t gone on the mission trip. It was a wonderful experience — even with everything I’ve said, it was a wonderful experience — but my reaction while I was there planted a seed of doubt and disappointment and darkness in me that quietly grew and grew. Years later, when we were living in Tulsa, that darkness became a deep depression, a crippling self hate that nearly wrecked my life.

All because my heart beats a little too fast when someone says hi to me. All because I can’t quite catch my breath when a stranger reaches out to shake my hand. It’s sad, really.

But I’m getting better.

My Vices

I have mentioned here before that I have a family history that predisposes me to an addictive personality. As so many silly children do, I spent much of my early twenties partying with alcohol, and (at my parents’ insistence) I was on the constant lookout for any signs of alcoholism. Lucky me, I’ve never seen any.

I thought it might be fun (and/or useful) to review my history with with addictive substances, for posterity as it were. So far, none of them has been my downfall, but it’s an ongoing investigation.

I have never tried any illegal drugs.

Really, I’ve never had the opportunity. I had a couple of friends in high school who did, but never around me and they never invited me to try. I guess I grew up in the right part of town, and hung out with the right crowd, and I’ve been consistent enough about that throughout my life that it just never happened.

When I was in New York, visiting D–, we spent one evening at birthday party for a friend of his, whom he had met while he was living there. The party was in a cramped little apartment (as they all are in New York City, and there were many guests, and the food did not appeal to me but I was too polite to say so, and I may have already been a little bit drunk before we ever went over there, so all told I wasn’t in too good of shape.

Of course, the worst of it was the crowd of strangers. I had a pretty good anxiety attack going on just from that. Anyway, sometime late in the evening the birthday boy gets to opening presents, and one of them was a baggie of what must have been pretty good weed, because he was awfully excited to get it. And, generous fellow that he was, he rolled a joint and they passed it around.

That, really, was my opportunity. Only time in my life I’ve been in the same room as a joint. I was feeling sick, though, and not at all adventuresome, so I passed it right along.

So, that’s drugs.

I’ve smoked some cigarettes, out of boredom more than anything else. I remember one time when I got trashed at Brad’s place (which will, necessarily, be described later), Brian recommended that I smoke a couple cigarettes in the hopes that the stimulant effect would, I dunno, bring me down. I did, and it didn’t, and the night did not end well (as will be shown).

Apart from that, I’ve smoked maybe a total of a pack of cigarettes, at various times — all of them have been when I was hanging out with D– at some bar (usually with a larger social group), and I bummed some cigarettes off him just for something to do while everybody else played pool and danced and joked among themselves. More than once I’ve had a cigarette when it was just D– and me, sitting across the table talking, just because, y’know, if he’s going to be blowing smoke in my face, I feel like I ought to get some sort of vengeance.

Some of that might sound like D–‘s a heavy smoker. Not at all, really, but he tends to take a pack with him when he goes to a bar, and sometimes the mood strikes him. That’s all there is there.

I’ve had four or five cigars in my time, too, and I’d love to have more, but I enjoy saving them for special occasions. That, and I’m not wealthy enough to buy things yet just to set them on fire. And I’m still a little too pretentious to buy cheap cigars. I’d rather not smoke at all.

So, yeah. When it comes to smoking, it’s only ever been occasional, and never tempting toward addiction.

Oh, sweet alcohol.

Actually, this bit is long, even hitting just the highlights. Feel free to skim over it. If you know me at all, you probably know most of these stories.

We moved to Wichita when I was twelve or so, and bought a house, and apparently when we moved into the house my parents found a couple bottles of liquor left there by the previous owners. Knowing liquor doesn’t really go bad, they decided to keep it, but a desperation to be good parents had kept my parents from drinking anything at all for as long as I’d been alive (at least, as far as I know of).

So they tucked the bottles away in the very back of an old buffet that stood in our living room, and probably forgot all about them.

I was looking for a deck of playing cards one day, and stumbled upon them. They fascinated me. After that I waited, always looking for an opportunity, and one evening they left me home alone and I seized my opportunity. I dug out the two bottles. One was labeled “Gin,” but I opened it and it didn’t really have any smell to it. I took that to mean it probably had no real flavor, so wouldn’t be too exciting a thing to try. The other bottle was nearly sealed shut by the thick, long-congealed sugary syrup under the cap, and when I finally wrenched it open it smelled strongly of peppermint, and the sour smell of alcohol. This, I thought, was good liquor.

So I poured probably half a shot of peppermint schnapps into a tall glass of Dr Pepper, and drank it down. It was nasty. I probably wouldn’t have liked a Gin and Dr Pepper any better, but I shudder to think that this was my first cocktail. I was probably fourteen.

When I was fifteen, I was babysitting some kid at somebody’s house, and I noticed an open bottle of wine in the fridge. I waited until the kid was down sleeping for the night (and the parents weren’t due home for some time), and I stole a sip of it, expecting delicious things. It was just sour and nasty. I spent some time trying to figure out how to warn them that their wine had gone bad without admitting I’d tried it, but finally gave up, realizing they’d have to figure it out for themselves.

It was a chardonnay, and I’m quite confident it was a perfectly good one. I was a kid, though. All I knew was that wine was made out of grapes, so I expected something much sweeter.

When I was sixteen, I drank for real for the first time. There was a campground just outside of town called King’s Camp, when the church would sometimes have youth retreats and whatnot. It sat in some small woods near a scrawny little Kansas lake, and it only saw any real business during the summer.

My friends and I (Brad and Brian again, as well as a few others from the youth group) had found an entrance to the camp that wasn’t locked up in those long months when the camp was out of use, and so we would often sneak back there for a night out in the woods. Brad and Brian ended up hunting some, when they were older, but I can’t imagine what else we found to pass the time out there. Still, it was a favorite hangout. That’s also where I took my girlfriend Lindsey to dump her on Valentine’s Day. But that’s another story.

One night, though, Brian decided it was time we all learn how to drink. Brad may or may not have been part of this evening, but I know and D– and I showed up, as well as a guy from our youth group named Erin, and another friend of Brian’s that none of us knew. That friend was our supplier, though.

We ended up with a flask of Southern Comfort, a flask of Peach Schnapps, and a gallon jug of orange juice. We made a fire out in the woods, and spent an evening talking about girls and drinking shots and swigging right out of the bottle, and just pretending like we were awfully cool guys.

Everybody drank too much (and the oldest among us was probably eighteen, and didn’t have much more experience drinking than I did at that point). We eventually put out the fire and stumbled back to one of the cabins that had been left unlocked to sleep off the few hours left in the night. Brian, realizing we’d all probably have hangovers the next morning, separately encouraged both D– and me to drive into town and pick up some aspirin, because we were the least drunk. We both remember making the drive (independently), all freaked out that we were going to get caught drunk driving and probably nowhere close to actually drunk, but neither knew the other one was doing the same thing.

I remember when I got back with the aspirin, everyone else was sound asleep. Thinking we would probably want to clear out pretty quickly in the morning to avoid getting caught, I spent some time tidying up before I went to sleep. I threw away plastic cups and other trash, put away the deck of cards, and emptied the remains of the peach schnapps into the orange juice bottle (you know, so there’d be less to carry).

Turns out, Brian’s friend had taken both the orange juice and the schnapps from his parents’ fridge, and when he unknowing put back the spiked OJ, he ended up getting in a lot of trouble. Hah!

Nothing bad came of that night, except for D– getting a little scraped up trying to escort a falling-down-drunk Erin through the trees, and having to make up an excuse for the scrapes on his arms come Sunday morning….

Two weeks later, give or take, I was out to lunch with my mom, and we were talking of all manner of things, and I leveled with her about what we’d done. I’ve always had that sort of relationship with my mom. I think she was probably pretty worried to hear we’d been up to it, but she just said she was glad I could be honest with her, and hopefully next time I’d be a little safer about it.

After that, I didn’t really drink until my Junior year in high school when I met B–, and he taught me how to drink wine. The first time he invited me over, I asked if he would pick up a bottle of Arbor Mist Blackberry Merlot (or something equally crappy), because I’d seen ads and it just sounded delicious. He did, graciously enough, but he also got a bottle of actual, good Merlot.

I remember him laughing when he discovered that the Arbor Mist had a twist top. I also remember I didn’t like it much, even that first time. I still kept buying such stuff for a year or two, but Bruce convinced me that the Merlot was a lot better, and it didn’t take me long to learn to appreciate actual wine.

Early in my Freshman year at college, I was in Wichita visiting for the weekend and spent an evening over at Brad’s place. D– was back in OKC at the time, and he came over, too. Over the last year or two, since I had left Wichita, Brad and Brian had become pretty close. Still, everybody thought it would be fun to get together.

Brad and Brian were smokers, then, and they drank beer. That was most of the plan for the evening: poker, beer, and smoking. Ah, and Brad grilled up some venison, so I guess this was when they were hunting, too.

I was extremely pretentious back then, and I would not condescend to drink beer. D– was okay with it, and Brad and Brian seemed to love it, but when I asked if they had any wine, I was out of luck.

Brad remembered that he’d stashed away a bottle of vodka that he’d gotten somewhere, though, and I said (knowing nothing), “Ah, vodka, that’s a real drink!”

They’d spent some time ribbing me for being to effeminate to drink beer like the rest of them, so when Brad poured me a shot of vodka I slammed it back. That’s something I’ve always been good at — slamming shots without any visible difficulty, just a natural talent apparently. Anyway, they seemed impressed how easily I did that shot, and I felt pretty good about impressing them (and drinking the shot had been remarkably easy), so I told him to pour me another, and I knocked that one back, too.

I did seven shots before the first one caught up with me.

I remember spending the rest of the evening locked in a little half-bath down in the basement, ten feet away from the table where they were playing poker. I’d heard that drinking a lot of water was the key to not getting hungover, so I had a water glass that I kept filling from the sink, downing it as quick as I could, and then just standing with hands on both walls, bracing myself against the world’s spinning, and hoping not to puke.

Periodically, I would stick my head out the door and shout, “Brian…is a bitch!”

I didn’t really come down after a couple hours, and Brad hadn’t intended on anybody staying the night, so Brian drove me to D–‘s place (where I was supposed to be). I remember D– laughing at me, because he’d never seen me really drunk before, and he told me that the best solution to that level of drunkenness was Pepsi and Twizzlers, and he just happened to have both. So he gave me a 24-pack of Pepsi and a 1-pound bag of Twizzlers, and sat back and watched while I gorged myself on both.

Even 7 shots in, I don’t think I would have thrown up that night if not for D–‘s little trick. What a bastard.

Anyway, that’s the worst I’ve ever felt drinking. I’ve had nights as bad as that since then (although only a few), but that was the first, and I really wasn’t sure I was going to make it through.

Then, really immediately after that, I decided I needed to learn how to drink actual liquor. I started out with Vodka, and essentially my goal was to be able, in case it ever became necessary, to face off against a tableful of Russian mobsters and match them shot for shot of Vodka without losing my cool. It seemed like a useful survival skill.

I learned a lot about Vodka in the months that followed, and we threw a big party involving several brands of flavored Vodka for T–‘s 21st birthday, during that time. We rented A Knight’s Tale (which she loved), and made up a drinking game for it. Every time a lance broke, we said, we’d drink a shot.

Turns out, there’s a montage scene in which about fifteen lances break within ten seconds. Luckily, by that point, we were all too messed up to count, so we just gave up on it.

That’s the party where D– threw up in T–‘s drawer, in the bathroom. Her scrunchies were never the same. That’s the same one where…well, I can’t give away too many people’s secrets in one blog post. Everybody got smashed, though.

Somewhere along the way, I caught on to K–‘s appreciation of Jack Daniels, and decided I’d achieved my goal for Vodka, so I switched over to Jack. I remember going through a whole bottle in a weekend, more than once. I would drink it straight, in large quantities. It was expensive, and it wasn’t really that much fun, but I was proud of what I could accomplish.

Yeah, yeah. I was in college. Everyone in college is that stupid.

I remember Toby and I would go for walks around the perimeter of the OC campus, evenings, he with his Mountain Dew bottle full of very strong margarita, and me with my root beer bottle full of Jack Daniels. Those probably weren’t as healthy of an activity as we thought they were.

When we moved out of the OC dorms (first K– and N– into their apartment at the Links, and then T– and I when we moved to Tulsa), things changed. In spite of everything I’ve said, we did have a certain amount of restraint imposed by the knowledge that we could be kicked out of school (and our apartments) if we were ever caught drinking (or even possessing alcohol within the apartments).

That first year that K– and N– had their own apartment, we reveled in the freedom of it. When T– and I moved to Tulsa, we would still often come to OKC to hang out with K– and N– and D– over weekends, or they would come up to visit us, often once a month, and every single weekend involved at least one night of just stupid, stupid drinking (and at least one day of groaning and doing nothing following).

The biggest ones that stand out are New Years party’s, and the Halloween party where my little sister hooked up with my now brother-in-law. We went all out for actual holidays, but we had crazy parties no matter what. If we were getting together, most of us were getting drunk.

T– got tired of it before the rest of us (by at least two years), and looking back on it I feel more than a little shame. We were acting like idiot college kids, really. We’ve all outgrown it by now. Sure, we still drink (and one or two of us drinks too much, at least once a month), but it’s nothing like the parties we used to have.

That’s probably as worried as I’ve ever been, about my drinking. I hated my job, for most of the time I lived in Tulsa, and I hated being so removed from my friends. College had been awesome for me, more because I was constantly surrounded by friends and engaging with them, than for any other reason. Getting out into the real world, where every one of us had responsibilities and life called us away to other cities and states…it irked me. Real life got to me, and I felt like those parties were an opportunity to rebel against real life.

That’s dangerously close to drinking to escape from problems. Still, I knew what I was doing (by which I mean, I was aware just how much I was drinking), and I took care to pay attention. I would spend weeks at a time without drinking at all, in between visits, and I was always asking myself, “Do I need a drink? Or does it just sound like fun?”

And, through it all, I was always pretty sure that, the fact that I was even asking myself those questions probably meant I had a problem. I had been raised to start from the assumption that it was probably a problem, really. Looking back now, I don’t think it ever was. It was stupid, I’m sure, but twenty-five-year-olds are stupid. That’s just how it goes.

It waned, too. We all got older, and I think we probably stopped having those parties more because we lost the youthful energy to recover from them than because we matured out of it, but maturity came along close enough behind, and we could look back and chuckle at our own antics.

Not…not that we’re all that mature now. I don’t have any trouble remembering back to the last time one of was too drunk to remember it. I don’t ever really have to worry that I might be an alcoholic these days, though. I have alcohol in the house all the time, and I go days and weeks without pouring a glass. Then I might go a week or two in a row averaging a glass a day (and much of that bunched up in three or four nights), and it’s still not particularly responsible, but it’s not dependency, either.

I guess I always sort of assumed I would end up an alcoholic, and I certainly didn’t try too hard to avoid it, but I’ve managed so far to dodge that bullet. I’ve got an awful lot of stories where alcohol is concerned, but it’s not the vice that’s going to bring me down.

Video Games
Well, I’ve already covered all the substances. I could go into detail on “Food,” but frankly, it would be boring. I’ve got health issues and diet is a part of it, but it’s not the biggest part and never has been.

I recently read a book, though, that discussed the addictive nature of video games, and pointed that modern games, MMOs especially, implement a reward and dependency system that impacts the brain in exactly the same manner as dopamine-based drugs.

I’m not surprised. In fact, I’ve knowingly turned to video games in precisely the ways I would never allow myself to turn to alcohol, when my problems became too much for me to handle. The MMOs I’ve played have included Asheron’s Call for most of college, Star Wars Galaxies while I lived in Tulsa, and World of Warcraft for longer than any of the others. Now I’m playing Age of Conan, of course, but I could just as easily lapse back into WoW any day.

The thing is, I obsess. I do have an obsessive personality, and if I don’t have something benign to focus that on, I focus it on my real life problems. I can build myself into a full anxiety attack over finances, home repair, relationships, frustrations at work, whatever. Finances are the easiest, and I find myself constantly worrying over them, no matter what else is going on.

When I’m actively involved in an MMO, though, I worry about that instead. I’ll spend hours just sitting, idly considering what I need to do to improve a character or make progress in some dungeon I’m trying to conquer.

It’s stupid, it’s inconsequential, and I know that. That doesn’t bother me at all. It’s something that doesn’t matter, but it fully captures my attention — it lets my brain work overtime on a problem without actually building up any real anxiety, because I know that at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.

I can’t do that with my writing. I wish I could just aim my addiction in that direction and churn out pages and pages. I wrote a post two years ago about how that doesn’t work for me, though. I write from calmness and security, not from chaos. It’s just who I am.

I use games to vent, though. To escape. It’s not harmless. I spend too much of the little free time I have on it, especially when I don’t bother to limit myself. Without careful attention, I can let myself come home from work every day and sink into my game until late at night — while away whole weekends with my only social interaction occurring when friends or family log into the game with me.

It is an addiction, and if I don’t wrestle with it, it takes a toll on all of my relationships. Still, it’s the most benign of the addictions I think I could have fallen prey to. It works in my life, if I can just maintain a little balance. But, yeah, it does work for me. It helps me handle something that needs handling. I use video games to cope with the stress of real life.

I guess…I guess that makes video games my anti-drug? Ugh. I’ve become one of them.

Anyway, yeah, I’m counting down the minutes until I can get off work and go play Conan. Don’t judge me. It’s just who I am.

God: A Poem

He looked me in the eye, and said,
“If I’m going to Hell anyway, I might as well do it.”

And none of us has seen him since.

God and Greatness: Absolution

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about absolution — about sin in general, and the afterlife as well.

In my time, I’ve been a lot of different places on the topic of life after death. There was a long time when I felt like there was no NEED for a life after death — on a personal, individual base, the extent of your consciousness IS eternity, after all. I built up a big argument for it, trying to work my way around to “Live life to the fullest,” I guess, but it just doesn’t match with anything I believe, long-term.

I sort of outgrew that phase, without really replacing it with anything. I just settled back into default, I guess.

Then I started this blog, about a year ago, and sometime around a week after I wrote “The Magic Architect,” I really started understanding what I really believe these days.

(And I was already arguing the supporting points back at the very beginning, but it’s only recently that the pieces fit together into a big picture, y’know?)

So. What is salvation? What is grace? What about “neither height nor depth” separating us from God, and whatnot? What about Love keeping no record of wrongs?

I asked these questions before. You’ve seen me mull them.

Why would Jesus give up his divine life, so that we could walk a knife edge that we’ll almost certainly going to fall off? That’s a huge sacrifice for a pretty risky investment. We’re told he died to save us from everlasting death, not just to give us a fighting chance….

Me, I see people screwing up. People screw up all the time. Life is just a big string of terrible mistakes. Daniel asked me recently if I thought people ever really stop sinning, if anyone ever really overcomes temptation, and I said I’m pretty sure that happens when people die, and not really before.

And I don’t mean that as a pessimistic statement, and I don’t mean it as a snarky way to score a conversational point. I think Life is a kind of hell — or, to use someone else’s terminology (and I’m mostly thinking of Lewis here), a kind of purgatory. It’s not where we’re supposed to be, and it’s not something we’re good at, and it’s got more negatives than positives about it.

I think that (as I’ve said before) thanks to the gift of absolution, humans having to suffer through Life is a kindness. It’s an opportunity that we desperately need, to learn the important lessons without facing the eternal consequences for the little mistakes along the way.

I cherish Life, for this reason. I’m proud of all those people I see living it, really participating in the experience. Which is not say those going out of their way to make mistakes, in the hope of learning from them (or, to use someone else’s words again, those people who are “going on sinning so that Grace may increase”). No, I think anybody rushing blindly into folly after folly after folly without trying to learn from it is setting himself up for some long-term suffering.

But there are some people who try to really experience Life, who try get everything they can out of it. And let me tell you (as if you didn’t already know), living life boldly will result in mistakes, and missteps, and grand catastrophes from time to time. Living life boldly will result in sins, and addictions, and suffering (and, to make sure it’s real suffering, it won’t just be your own, but your mistakes will cause suffering to those that you care about). Living life boldly means that, from time to time, you will be viciously, horribly guilty.

And that’s where absolution comes in. We are not called to a spirit of timidity, but to a spirit of boldness. We could try to hide behind a Law, we could try not to commit sins, and we could commit a whole life to not being bad, but that would be — listen carefully — that would be a life wasted. That would be nothing learned. That would be all the pain of temptation rejected, and in the end you are where you started — you know what is wrong, and what is right. Hiding behind rules does not mature you, does not better prepare you for tomorrow, or for infinity.

To do that, you must come out from behind the Law and experience Good and Evil. You must enter into the actual knowledge of both, and choose Good. But doing so will leave you marked with all the filthy stains of your journey, all the wickedness you surrendered to along the way. By the time you’re in a position to choose Good, you’re too filthy a thing to do so.

And, of course, our God provided an answer. He paid a heavy price, but it was a price he was willing to invest in his children. Absolution. He invested Christ, not in the goodie goodies who avoid mixed swimming and run away from temptations (the older sons, as it were). No, he invested the blood of Christ in all those who have tasted everything the world has to offer, the Good and Bad, and who, having seen the fullness of what the devil has to give, are willing and able to reject it in favor of the kingdom. Those are the ones who will truly know the value of what they have obtained, and it was for them that the blood was shed.

All things are permitted to me, but not all things are good for me. Life…life is an opportunity to learn both halves of that statement. Get started.

God: The Magic Architect

Once upon a time there was a Magic Architect and he was the best Magic Architect that had ever lived. The Magic Architect was able to build any kind of house or building just by wishing for it. Anything he could imagine, he could create, with just a word! His own home was a huge mansion, and it was filled with delightful things, but there were very few surprises there. Everything was simple, and beautiful — every wall, every room, every decoration.

Then one day the Magic Architect had a child! A beautiful baby boy was born, and the Architect was very happy, and very in love with his little son. As the boy grew older, he began to play with toys, and his favorite toys were little blocks. The boy would sit for hours, building, and the Magic Architect saw that his son, too, would be a Magic Architect.

(Continued in comments…because it is REALLY long.)

Greatness: Man’s Divine Nature

Okay, for several of you, about three paragraphs into this post, you’re going to think, “He’s talking about me!” And that “me,” in case you didn’t catch it, is shrill and outraged. Honestly, though, this is something everyone needs to hear, often. It’s not directed at or wholly inspired by any one of you. (No, not even you.) But, if it happens to speak to your own life, now, take it to heart and be glad at the coincidence that placed words into your life right where they belonged.

I’m just sayin’, is all.

But here’s the thing: everyone you encounter in your life is a person.

I need some snappier way of saying that, a clever phrase that will stick in your head and pop into your thoughts right when it’s needed. Maybe before this post is through I’ll come up with one. For now, though, we’ve gotta settle with the boring, apparently obvious “everyone you encounter in your life is a person.”

That’s a big deal, though. We live our lives inside the first-person point-of-view that so many authors have discarded as being too limited in scope. Each of us sees his life as his own story, and all the people he encounters along the way are just characters, just plot developments that push his story this way or that. Some of them we love for the impact they have on our lives. Some of them we hate, for the same reason. And the named characters keep coming back, keep affecting our lives in different ways, so maybe our feelings about that person change, shift, over the course of the story.

Even so, making another human being into a dynamic character in your story isn’t enough.

Because, behind his eyes, he’s living his own story. He’s got a whole world, a whole life of his own to live. He’s conscious and aware and trying to live his life well. Where it intersects with yours, there is conflict. In writing, we refer to all of these intersections as conflict. It could be a fistfight or an embrace, but it’s still conflict. It’s two stories trying to come to terms enough for each of them to move on, in their own directions.

This post isn’t about the story metaphor, though. In fact, my main point is that the story metaphor completely defines most of our lives, and it’s totally wrong. Or, rather, dangerously limited in scope.

Everyone you encounter — whether it’s a friend, a loved one, or a perfect stranger — everyone you encounter is living a whole life, is a person encountering you at the same time. And every one of us (I’m convinced of this) is trying to live a good life. What exactly that means changes from day to day, but every one of us is trying to live a good life.

I know you are. Right now, you are.

And yet, even so, you make mistakes. You say something offhand to someone you really care about, and it’s just devastating to them. You’ve done that, without ever meaning to offend, and you’ve seen the impact it had on their lives.

You act, trying to do something good (or at least something pleasant), and years later you see how your own actions are impacting the lives of people you’ve met, people you care about. Sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad ways, and you never really know which will be which.

Sometimes you just act like a jerk. I’m not accusing you, I’m just reminding you of something you know is true. Sometimes you’re in a bad mood, and something touches you off, and you just act like a total jerk. It’s a short-lived thing (because you’re not a jerk), and next moment you’re back to trying to live a good life.

And that’s okay. Life is a learning experience. You try to get better as you go along, which is the same as saying that, all the time, you’re trying to live a good life.

Now…change perspectives. Think of someone you encountered yesterday. It can be a stranger, or it can be your spouse. But think of someone specific. Think of someone you encountered yesterday, and realize that that person was trying to live a good life. That person was an awareness behind his eyes, looking out on the world and making decisions about it. Maybe he said something that hurt your feelings. Maybe he acted, in a way that will impact your life down the line (for good or bad). Maybe he was just a complete jerk.

But he wasn’t doing any of those things to you, y’see? He’s living his life, just like you’re living yours. He was making decisions, and maybe floundering and maybe just shining like the sun. We do that, sometimes, too. You do that, more often than you realize. You’re just going along, trying to live a good life, and out of nowhere, BAM!, you actually do. You flare up like a nova, and shed beautiful light on the lives of everyone around you.

I’ve seen you do it. Otherwise I wouldn’t have invited you to read my blog.

And think about your own life. Sometimes you’re awesome. Sometimes you’re horrible. Through it all, though, remember that you’re a Child of God. You are this amazing thing, this beautiful, boundless potential, and you’re living a life learning how to live up to that potential. Remember that you are everything that you could one day be. You are the brilliant, shining moments, and the cost of becoming that, the very process of becoming that, necessarily includes the sleazy, cruel, selfish moments, along with all the rest.

And that stranger who just cut you off in traffic? He’s the same thing. That’s one of his bad moments, but he’s a Child of God, and you had better believe that there’s times he glows in radiant beauty. The same is true of everyone you meet. Every person, every single person, is a little bit of divine spark trying to learn how to shine. And all of them are seeing the world through their own faulty eyes, trying to guess what it all really means (just like you do), and making decisions, and making bad choices, and stumbling through today because, please, maybe tomorrow will be better.

That includes people close to you. That includes your Mom or your Dad. It includes boyfriends and girlfriends and spouses and siblings and children who just won’t treat you like you deserve. They’re looking at a world they can’t quite get, they’re fending off frustrations and trying to find their purpose and wrestling with the injustice of it all, and when you cross their path, when you enter their life, they make a decision that will impact you.

And it may be good, and it may be bad. Switch perspectives again. You encounter someone in your life, someone important to you, someone you care about, and you make a decision that will impact that person’s life. It may be good, it may be bad. You want it to be good, but you know from long, long experience, that there’s equal chances something will go wrong.

All of us, every one of us, is trying to live a good life. It’s fair to be hurt when someone hurts you. It’s fair to be annoyed at someone acting like a jerk. But remember, always remember, every single one of those people is a little bit of divine spark, trying to learn how to shine.

I challenge you, personally, to try to see that in people. Try to see people as people, wherever you encounter them, not just as characters in the story of your life. Try to remember who they are.

And, in a very specific application of this, here’s your homework. Think of someone you care about, and who you know cares about you. Someone who has hurt you so bad that you almost discarded them from the list when I said, “and who you know cares about you.” Think about that person, and the thing he or she did to hurt you.

And think about a time when you made a choice about someone important to you, and you hurt them. Whether you meant to hurt them or not, you made a choice that hurt their lives.

Dwell upon these two things, and find the space behind this person’s eyes. Find the space inside his or her own mind, where the offense happened. And try to recognize it for what it was, rather than what it became within your life.

Please? For me?

God: God’s Divine Plan and the Meaning of Life

I’ve already told you the meaning of life (that is, the reason for this temporal existence). It’s an opportunity for us to learn that Man’s way doesn’t work — that striking out on our own is…unpleasant. Even with all the beauty and the love and goodness we DO manage to effect, the sum total of human independence is a life we DON’T want to live.

Life is a chance to learn that.

After all, most of the beauty and the love and the goodness are aspects of God in our lives ANYWAY, so living independently merely reduces the amount of it. And, that reduced amount doesn’t make up for the genocide and the starving babies and etc.

So. Where, then, our interventionist God?

I’ll say this: I don’t believe God has an ultimate plan for the things that will happen in this world. I don’t think he’s in control, and I don’t think he’s trying to be. Oh, he’s CAPABLE of it — he’s shown before and he shows again every day that there’s nothing in this world so real that he can’t bend or twist it to his needs. But, for the most part, he doesn’t have much in the way of needs.

He needs a voice calling out his name, so that others will hear and remember what they already know. He needs a perfect life lived and a payment in blood to forgive on the infinite scale the mistakes made in this finite place. And that’s been done. I think, pretty much, that’s the plan. Oh, yeah! He needs people to be people (and learn why that doesn’t work).

That’s life, right there. That’s God’s divine plan for this world. I don’t think God has a plan that involves where you work, or what color your baby’s eyes are. Life is in OUR hands — he gave us dominion over this world and it goes all the way. And — rain on the just and the unjust — he gave dominion to ALL of us. Not just the good ones.

I’ll say it loud: God is not responsible for the state of this world. People are. People made this world.

God’s not even responsible in an initial kinda way, because he didn’t MAKE people in this world. He starts them out in Eden, and starts them out with a nature that will keep them there, but their own proud curiosity drives them (and, of course, by “them” I mean “us”) out of Eden and into this world, which we then help make more like it is.

This world, the one we live in day to day, is not of God’s making, but it (as a whole) fits within his plan for that other world, Infinity. Life is broken (we broke it), and that simple realization is an opportunity to learn why we should let go of it.

Does this all sound like I’m repeating myself? I’m actually trying to extend the argument to a conclusion. God’s Plan has nothing to do with our day-to-day lives. If God controlled that — if he exerted his dominion over how the world runs, and its general course — then life wouldn’t be able to serve the purpose it serves. It’s not that he’s an uncaring God (as some have said) and certainly not that he’s an absent God. It’s just that this life is doing what it was meant to do — it’s hurting as much as it heals. Which is a reminder that there’s a world that doesn’t hurt at all.

But what about prayer? I can practically hear you shoving each other out of the way to be the first to challenge me with that. Didn’t I say I believed in prayer? Am I shoving God out of the world entirely now?

Not at all. There are two answers here, and the difference between them is kinda subtle. (Also, one of them presumes I’ve done a better job establishing the whole nature of constructed reality than I have, but I’ll ignore that for now.)

First: people are born in Eden, entirely devoted to God’s giving, and only through living learn to try to live outside of Eden, which enters them into this world, which is Man’s dominion, not God’s. By trusting yourself wholly to God, by walking in the light, as it has been said, you begin the process of removing yourself from Man’s world and entering back into God’s. Prayer for THINGS doesn’t qualify as this — asking God to work miracles and bend the reality that we think of as reality, that’s insisting on staying within this reality but wanting it to be a better one.

But committing yourself to God, within this life, removes you mostly from it and entrusts your self to a world where God IS in complete control. That’s what Eden is all about.

That’s the first option. Your frame can be ambling around in the real world, while your spirit rests in God’s dominion.

The other option is one I offered above as a possibility: miracles, powerful prayer, interventionist deity. And I believe in these things, and I think it’s the only possible way to claim that God lets us run our own lives, but still loves us.

Because he’s there as a safety net, as a protector, as a Providence. He gave us full control, but part of that control is the capacity to ask God to help out. He is very much there, and he is very much paying attention — he’s just not running the show. A mother watching her children perform a puppet show, maybe. She’s paying attention and deliberately not interfering, for their sake, but she’s still there in her full capacity as their mother, ready to step in and save them if they get hurt, or to correct them if they take this little play too far into wickedness.

It’s a pleasant metaphor, and it gets a basic idea, but I’m not trusting it too far. Get the gist out of the image and then let it go, because it’s not a whole parallel. Still, God is there, constantly, watching and listening and dearly loving us. He answers prayers, he changes things within this world (perhaps things we could change on our own, through magic or logic or technology, perhaps things we couldn’t), but he doesn’t guide its flow. He doesn’t tell us what our world should be…or, rather, he did, once, and we saw it, and we shrugged, and we said, “Ehh, I could do better.”

And that’s this world. The other one is still there, waiting for us, and God DOES have an active hand in that world — he’s constantly maintaining it as the perfect residence for Man, and constantly inviting us back to it. We get to live in this sandbox of a Life for as long as we need to, to learn, and it’s all ours, but God’s is there, too, just as real, and always open.

God: Reframing

I want to take a moment to introduce a specific concept to you, in case you’re not already familiar. Therapists and counselors sometimes use a technique called “reframing” to help a patient deal with a traumatic or otherwise negative experience.

One of the books I’m working on, which would use largely the material I’m putting forth in these most recent conversations, I would like to subtitle “Reframing the Fall of Man.” That’s my real goal.

A reframe is essentially a deliberate shift in perspective. The goal is to take a real, actual thing that is hurting the patient, and then change the patient’s perspective in such a way as to make that real thing USEFUL to him. It’s not a denial of the existence of the problem, but it’s a conscience decision to grow from the it, rather than to just be victimized by it.

Therapists, I’m sure, use lots of tricky techniques to trigger the reframe. Me, I just babble on and on until you agree to shift perspective just to get me to shut up. It’s worked so far….

But, essentially, that’s my goal here. I’m not trying to say there’s no such thing as sin, or that this life isn’t painful and unfair.

Life hurts. Horrible, horrible things happen every day.

Sin happens, and it’s really terrible. When we sin, we make ourselves into worse people, and we hurt everyone who knows and loves us.

These are real situations that are a persistent aspect of our lives, and we have, as a people, learned how to be constantly victimized by these things, feeling guilt or disgust at the God who could allow them to continue, and helplessness within ourselves. Or, those others among us, we may have chosen the denial route, pretending sin and injustice don’t get to us, and just living as the heathens do….

What we need is a shift in perspective. We need to face these things in our lives, understand why they’re there, and make ourselves better, not worse, as a result of them.

We need to reframe the Fall of Man, we need to reframe our relationship with God, we need to reframe our attitudes toward other people (saints and sinners both). We need to change the way we view everything so that we can stop feeling like the poor, wandering stranger just-a-passin’-through and start feeling like the Sons of God, adopted heirs of the King, and start living in this world as though we’re prepared for the next.

That’s my goal here. That’s what I’m after. Wish me luck.