Bipolar View: Steady is as Steady Does

Sure, sometimes you wake up on the wrong side of the bed.

You probably can’t imagine what it feels like to wake up not knowing that there is a world beyond the thick blackness of the blankets pulled up over your eyes.

And some days you’re excited. It’s the first day of a vacation trip. It’s Christmas morning.

You probably can’t imagine waking up five or six times that enthusiastic, without any reason at all.

Having bipolar disorder means that steady is as steady does. Because the feelings are almost random.

When blackness enfolds, I \write down a list of tasks — even tasks as mundane as “wash the dishes” — and work through them. Otherwise nothing happens. At all.

daily-action-planner

When enthusiasm overwhelms, I have to choose to write down a list of tasks — especially tasks as mundane as “wash the dishes.” Because otherwise I’ll enthuse in 10 or 12 or 20 different directions, almost simultaneously. At the end of the burst, I’ll find myself surrounded by a clutter of unfinished projects and the clutter of an untended life.

I stay steady by trying to focus on what I need to do. And I stay steady by remembering that the way I feel today is not likely to be the way I feel in three or four weeks.

 

Female surfboarder

Not me!

I ride my feelings like surf: the enthusiasm powers forward movement; the blackness cannot be allowed to fuel anything bleaker than anticipation. Happily, God has promised a future that is extraordinarily bright, and allows that I live this life in the brilliance of God’s presence, even when God is invisible through the envolding darkness.

Steady is as steady does. No one is more steady than God.

Today’s  Five Minute Friday writing prompt is “Steady.”

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Mindfulness: A Path to Madness?

You don’t need to be a conservative Christian anxious about Eastern religion to have reservations about the widespread use of mindfulness meditation. Yet another study finds negative impacts for as many as 88% of those who attempted mindfulness meditation practices.

The most common negative impact: increases in fear, anxiety, panic, and paranoia, reported by 82% of practitioners in the study, “The Varieties of Contemplative Experience,” published in PLOS ONE and reported last week by Zenobia Morrill.

MeditatingOver the last couple of decades, mindfulness meditation has become standard in many therapy practices, as well as schools and prisons. How can the people who believe in “evidence-based practices” keep ignoring the real evidence that these practices are very often harmful?

Remember, traditional Christian contemplation of our unchanging God, God’s character and virtues, and God’s Word is entirely different from a mindfulness practice that seeks to “moor” a person in this ever-changing world or in their own internal reality.Serious Contemplation

What Not to Say When Your Friend’s Child Dies by Suicide

Here in Maine, many of us are grieving the suicide death last month of a 13-year-old middle school student. It can be hard to know what to say and what not to say in the face of such family tragedy. Female supportAnie Graham was described by friends as bubbly, friendly, and talented in math. Her parents saw a different picture.

They say that after they moved to a new school district, their daughter’s behavior changed in ways that concerned them. She kept telling them she wanted to die, and she began to cut herself.

Her father, Matt Graham, has told local media that the family reached out to mental health services and the school, but failed to receive effective assistance. He and his wife Rose also acknowledge that they only saw the cruel bullying on Anie’s social media accounts after her death. Continue reading

How ‘The Average of 5’ Undermines Christian Discipleship

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A few weeks ago, a church leader I know encouraged the flock to be careful about their relationships. “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with, you know,” he said. It’s important to surround yourself with people who build you up, he urged.

Sounds like a well-meaning exhortation to keep good company, right? And God warns us that bad company corrupts good character (1 Cor. 15:33).

Avoid the Drainers and Complainers

Jim Rohn

Jim Rohn

What I heard — perhaps unintended — was a lot of the baggage that the “average of 5” phrase carries in the business world, where it originated about a decade ago with the late motivational speaker Jim Rohn. Avoid the drainers and complainers. They take too much out of you. Focus your relational time on people who help you reach your goals. If your goals this year are different from your goals last year, then shift your circle. It’s great that one circle helped you hit your target weight, but if you’re aiming for a half-marathon this year, you need a new focal five.

I can understand this kind of thinking if the issue is changing a gym membership or swapping the garden club for a course in landscaping. I can’t understand it as a description of life in Christ. It suggests relationship as exchange — even aspiration. If you can help me get ahead, then let’s hang out. If not, well, we won’t be seeing much of each other.

The problem is that when you start to do relationships as math, you stop living as the organic Body of Christ. When we say we want to average our circles up to “become more like Jesus,” it seems almost godly to exclude a chronic complainer, a man who is regularly angry at “the System,” a woman who is a painful partner because she consistently has a “better” idea.

But what does that say about these difficult people in relationship to God?

How to Train Spiritual Dragons

Well Intentioned DragonsTwo decades ago, Marshall Shelley offered a different kind of guidance for church leaders who struggled with what he called Well-Intentioned Dragons, the “problem people” that plague every pastorate. Shelley assumes that these people are well-meaning and create chaos and dissent without intending to undermine the church. And instead of urging pastors to isolate them, he urges an embrace, helping them to find God’s love and to become increasingly well-functioning parts of the Body.

Some contemporary psychological research suggests that Shelley (and the Bible!) offer a better way. Social exclusion — an academic word for shutting people out of the group — can cause people to behave in ways that are damaging to themselves. One research experiment found that people who were told they were likely to end up alone later in life took inappropriate risks, chose unhealthy behaviors, and procrastinated rather than work toward an immediate goal.

How to Make Spiritual Dragons More Destructive

That is to say, when you threaten or demonstrate your readiness to exclude “dragons” from your life, you may protect yourself from fire, but they themselves become more likely to burn to death.

When you exclude “dragons” from your life,
you may protect yourself from fire,
but they themselves become more likely to burn to death.

Aspirational relationship — choosing our friends for the benefits they bring us — is very American. A century ago, Sinclair Lewis satirized the tendency in his novel Babbitt, which depicted a midlife businessman whose life was full of booster club activity and empty of intimate relations.

How to Create a Booster Club Church

Babbitt book cover

The cover designer of this Bantam edition seems to imply the essential facelessness — or lack of personal identity — of Lewis’ protagonist.

In the 21st century, American evangelical churches are still living out, in some measure, a similar idea. Sometimes church can feel like a Jesus booster club. We’re exhorted to live our lives in such a way that it makes it clear that following Jesus is desirable. We’re encouraged to attain lofty goals so we can influence people who value high achievement. And most recently, we’re urged, like those in secular culture, to excise from our life those people who fail to elevate us.

That’s not how God says the Body of Christ is built. When we try to rid our lives of “below average” Christians, aren’t we ignoring God’s instruction to recognize the “weaker” parts of the Body as “indispensable”? God tells us that the parts that are “less honorable” are treated with “special honor” and even that God has a purpose for this paradoxical arrangement:

“… God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:24-26).

Those “below average” people are, in fact, dragging down the entire Body of Christ, God says. And God’s answer is not to excise them but to encourage them. As long as they struggle, the entire Body is weakened. Excluding them isn’t even an option. They are, by God’s spiritual definition, included in the Body and essential to it.

dragon training

Dragon-fighting is a dangerous spiritual discipline. Dragon-training is more time-consuming, but creates truly powerful allies.

Which spiritual dragon is dragging down your “average of 5” today? How can you and God elevate them? What’s getting in your way?

How Being Mentally Ill Helps Me Know God Better


Mental illness is part of what it means to be me. It shapes my life in ways that many people define as “broken.” Living with bipolar disorder generally makes me an outsider. It often generates thoughts and behaviors that make other people anxious if I allow them entry to my world. Having a mental illness makes me subject to discrimination in many subtle and not so subtle forms.

Still, I would say that my illness adds value to my life and to the Body of Christ. It allows me to serve in places where others are afraid to go and challenges me to seek God in ways others feel uncompelled. Here are 7 ways I’ve noticed that mental illness helps me to know God.

1.       Being mentally ill means I’m less afraid of the unusual.

Being unusual myself tends to segregate me to a community of other people who are also set aside as “unusual.” M friends over the years have included a wife struggling in her cross-cultural marriage, a single woman who (literally) fell out of her chair laughing during a dinner party, and a disabled vet who wanted an editor for his science fiction novel. (He later turned out to be wanted for murder). A regular guest at our church’s dinner for people in need bragged for weeks that I was “the onliest person to come” help when her kitchen table collapsed. (It was a simple repair, just like the fix I’d recently done to my own vintage dinette table.) When you aren’t afraid of people who are unusual, you are able to engage with people that others overlook. You can see opportunities to be God’s hands and feet in

When you aren’t afraid of people who are unusual, you are able to engage with people that others overlook. You can see opportunities to be God’s hands and feet in service, because you interact with people who are – like yourself – open about living in need.

2.       Being mentally ill makes me less afraid to be different.

Reality is, I don’t have much choice about being different. No matter how carefully I try to mimic your behavior, your wardrobe, your activities, your interests, I know by experience that there will be a moment when my differences are publicly exposed. Maybe the boss will throw a curve by opening the team meeting with an ice breaker. “Who is your favorite movie actor?” And the question is so far from anything I ever think about that I stumble and mumble until she interrupts. “It’s not a hard question,” she says. Except for me it is.

Knowing that most people – Christian or not – will name me as “different” means I can’t let myself be concerned about it. If my worldview places me outside the American cultural norm, I can live with that. If my worldview places me outside the American Christian norm, I can live with that. I find it easier than many people to acknowledge that I am who I am – and sometimes even to know that I am who God made me to be – because I am largely without the option of molding myself into whatever is currently “socially acceptable.”

3.       Being mentally ill makes me less afraid of differences.

A person like me doesn’t have an instinctive understanding of almost anyone. You see me as awkward during a Bible study or at coffee hour when I fail to behave as the middle-class American Christian that I, in fact, am. And because I find it difficult to navigate these “ordinary” circumstances, I don’t find it more difficult to address situations that involve greater differences.

I once worked with a brilliant computer guy who was a first-generation immigrant. When he answered my question about his accent with a hard-edged, “I grew up in the jungles of Barbados,” I didn’t think twice before responding, “There are no jungles in Barbados.” We had many conversations after that about his experiences of American racism, including being spread-eagled by police as he walked from the MIT libraries back to his apartment late one night.

I find it easy to listen to other people who also experience themselves as different from others and to speak into the ways they experience their lives. A couple years ago, I spent a couple of weeks driving an out-of-state friend and her wheelchair around town while she had her last visits with her dying mother. One night, as she called for a third Margarita at her hotel’s bar, she asked me to explain the Old Testament sacrificial system. I would never have been there if I were uncomfortable with asking how to collapse her chair so it fit into my Prius, or what assistance she needed to get from chair to car and back again.

4.       Lacking some of your abilities, I have learned to take risks.

I’m not very good at reading social cues, and other people often find my reactions inappropriate – if not totally confounding. That means that there are very few settings where I feel secure.

But because I know from experience that I’m likely to put my foot in it every day, I’m less likely to worry about taking another opportunity to put my foot in it. Every day feels risky, which makes me paradoxically more willing to take risks: whether engaging a stranger in conversation about God or offering prayer to a colleague in distress. When very little feels safe, then very little feels relatively dangerous. You might keep your distance from a gay colleague who practices Kabbalah; I’m no more anxious with him than with you.

I cannot trust myself so I must trust God. That’s a good thing.

5.       My illness has made me more practiced in resilience.

Bipolar disorder is an illness that can destroy careers and relationships. At its least damaging, it tends to create a person who runs in shame – over and over — from the embarrassments she has created. People with bipolar start over again, and again, and again.

Paradoxically, one word to describe this behavior is a positive one: “resilience.” Resilience is a popular topic right now. We use it to describe how people who have experienced adversity bounce back. We tend to believe resilience is the product of a stable and loving family, solid training in basic life skills, and a certain sense of life purpose. For me, resilience is a learned skill. When I experience a disaster or create a disaster, I have learned to bounce back – but only so far. As a person with bipolar disorder, my innate “bounce back” tends to vary from Superball zing during highs to uninflated ball flop during lows. My learned response is simply to stand … again. Instead of having the skills that keep you from falling, I have fabulous skill at getting off the floor. God calls this “perseverance” and reminds us that God provides what we need so that after we have done all we can do ourselves, we will stand (Eph. 5:13).

6.       I’m more (consciously) practiced in discernment.

“Normals” often turn from something because at some subconscious level, schooled by church or culture, they “know” it’s out of line. I have fewer clear subconscious guides. My brain runs fast and full of ideas. Which idea is good? Which idea is helpful? Which idea is for me to carry out and which is for me to pray into existence through someone else’s activities?

Sometimes it’s easy to tell that an idea is not good. When my mind insists that life is without value, that I might as well be dead, that there is no one to whom I matter, some part of me knows that the ideas are “bad” but no part of me can turn them away on my own. Usually I try to find another person – often a crisis-line staffer – to help me remember how to survive that day or night. Once God interrupted directly: “If you don’t have a reason to live until spring, then plant bulbs.” I’m glad I knew to believe God’s voice. I’m glad I had been schooled in listening for God’s voice. And yes, I still plant bulbs.

7.       Because I’m chronically ill, I focus more readily on God and the life beyond.

Many people who live with chronic illnesses live our faith in the prospect of God’s glory, not our own daily success. The victory we claim in Jesus is ultimate, not imminent. We know that God spoke truly when God told us that in this life we would experiences tests and temptation and pain … that we would only be liberated when we attain the new heaven and earth. There, the tears that have watered our lives will cease to exist, and our sorrows and suffering will vanish.

Having what we call a mental illness is a challenge. But it liberates me from some challenges that other Christians face. I am, perhaps, one of those unpresentable parts of the Body. And God assures me that those parts we consider least worthy of honor are still essential (I Cor. 12:22). My value in the Body of Christ is not measured by whether I have an important place or even am found acceptable in my church. It is God who determines my place and my value. With that, and with my own insufficiency, I must be content.