Sunday, March 24, 2019

Following Sisyphus

A message given to West Hills Friends on 3/24/2019
To love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal.  Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries.  Avoid all engagements.  Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.  But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change.  It will not be broken, it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.  To love is to be vulnerable.  ~C.S. Lewis

In January, one of Stephen’s closing queries was “what is your true north?” 

I think that’s a really interesting question.  For me, like many of you, the Bible once served as true North, but has since failed to live up to the task, or taken on a different role.  But for those of us who grew up with a source of objective morality, when that loses its power, where are we to turn for guidance?   When asked what my true north is, I interpret the question through the lens of someone who had one, and has lost it. 

Pondering true north during silence, the images that kept rising for me come from the book I’ve returned to most often since college.  The book is called The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays by Albert Camus.  It contains essays on a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about: how difficult life is, and how it’s so much easier to quit in the face of hardship than to push through it.   With so many ways for life to be difficult, how does a person maintain joy in the face of everything trying to take it away. 

To begin a bit of my story as of late, I’d like to quote from one of the early essays in Camus’ book:

“Like great works, deep feelings always mean more than they are conscious of saying.  The regularity of an impulse or a repulsion in a soul is encountered again in habits of doing or thinking, is reproduced in consequences of which the soul itself knows nothing.  Great feelings take with them their own universe, splendid or abject.  They light up with their passion an exclusive world in which they recognize their climate.”

One of the battles I’ve faced in the past few years is how to be a functioning rational person while also having an emotional landscape that isn’t a flat line.  Halfway through college, between the end of an engagement, my parents’ divorce, and the loss of my childhood faith, my body decided it was done having a wide variety of emotions.  I spent the ages of 20-34 mostly content, fairly peaceful, and completely cut off from emotions like romantic love, joy, and anxiety.  My days were routine, my jobs were routine, my marriage was routine. 

As a teenager, my emotional landscape was just the opposite.  I was nearly obsessed with the idea of having a soulmate.  I’d sit in my room listening to Jars of Clay albums, halfway singing worship songs to Jesus, and halfway sending those same words to whichever person I had a crush on at the time.  Christian music is funny that way.  I was nearly always anxious, anticipating the next youth group event where a crush might be present.  I loved Bible camp, then fell into deep depression after coming home, where there wasn’t any more worship music or campfire story time.  My journals reek of desperation.  Desperation to be seen completely, to see another completely, to bond souls with someone who would do the same with me. 

My shift in college took all of that desperation away.  I was no longer concerned with finding a soulmate.  I wasn’t much concerned with love at all.  I came to value consistency as the ideal goal.  Consistency did not move me up and down like a small boat in the ocean.  It didn’t cost me sleep, or cause deep depression.  The highs weren’t very high, but the lows also weren’t very low.  I was satisfied with the trade off, though I wasn’t aware that’s what had happened.  If Bono couldn’t find what he was looking for, what hope did I have?

The summer of 2012 sent the first meteor into my emotional walls.  I lost my job in unceremonious fashion, a job I had planned to retire from.  All of a sudden my sense of security, and consistency, was gone.  My entire financial future now rested on the job market, and my pregnant wife.  During this time I could barely get off the couch.  I spent hours staring at the wall, full of dread.  I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t find motivation to do much of anything.  After 2 weeks of this, we moved from our home into Vancouver into my mother’s basement.  That move allowed the shock to subside, and I slowly found the ability to function again.  I had to run away in order to move forward.  2 months into this period of my life, I first visited West Hills Friends.  3 months after that, my son was born.

The second crack my emotional walls came in the summer of 2016.  My wife had been on her own journey during this time.  First, she realized she was bisexual.  Not long after, she came to identify as polyamorous.  Those of you present in this meeting around that time may have been present for her messages on these topics.  Our marriage had suddenly become much more interesting.  We would spend night after night processing her discoveries, and what it meant for us.  As I am prone to do, I read all the books I could find, and eventually came to find that I agreed with the principles of polyamory, even if I wasn’t sure it would ever happen for me.  I wasn’t much for emotions, after all.  And without the emotions, what’s the point?

It’s a strange thing to hear that your one and only doesn’t necessarily want you to be her one and only.  I managed pretty well.  But then I met someone who saw me for who I was, and now I wasn’t sure I wanted to be my wife’s one and only.  That’s when emotions broke my brain again.    I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I could barely get off the couch.  The emotions were too much for my brain to handle.  The only way out was to walk away from the stress point. Once again, I had to run in order to move forward.   I did, and my ability to function returned again. 

I want to return to Camus for a moment.  In the myth, Sisyphus escaped from the underworld in order to castigate his wife, who had wronged him while he was alive.  As punishment, the gods forced him to roll a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down once he reached the top.  He was to perform this menial task for eternity.  Camus uses this myth as a metaphor for the struggles of our daily lives.  We too have boulders we push up mountains every day.  And every once in awhile, there is a pause.  The stone rolls down the hill, and we turn to look down upon it, then begin the walk back down the mountain. 

Camus is fascinated by what must go through the mind of Sisyphus as he returns to his stone.  If this is his fate, his body has no choice about what it will do.  But his mind does.  In his mind, there are no chains, or boulders, or mountains.  The power to be peaceful, or loving, or joyous, still exists in the mind.  And if our boulders are never going to stop, perhaps the only way forward is to find a way to love our punishment.  To quote Camus again:

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burdens again.  But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates gods and raises rocks.  He too concludes that all is well.  This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the height is enough to fill man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

As of now, I’m 3 months in to a new battle against overwhelming emotions.  It too has left me full of dread and anxiety, unable to eat or sleep.  But over the last few years I’ve learned through experience that I am capable of setting self-improvement goals and following through on them.  When the dreaded anxieties have arrived, I’ve always run away.  This time, I decided I’m not going to run.  This time, I’m already in the process of finding out what’s on the other side.  I’ve begun therapy for the first time in my life.  I’m practicing having and expressing emotions every day.  And I’m following Sisyphus’ lead.  I too will find a way to be happy while I’m rolling my boulder up the hill.  And when I get to the top, I’ll appreciate the view before walking down and starting all over again.  There must be joy to be found in pain and difficulty.  I’m determined to prove this true.


What parts of yourself feel too difficult to change?
What would you gain if you managed to change them?
What would you lose?
Have you ever surprised yourself by accomplishing something you’d previously believed was impossible?


Saturday, February 9, 2019

Everything Eternal

Right now I’m on the couch, listening to the wailing voice of Adam Duritz, whose songs with Counting Crows have helped me cry for 25 years.  I’m thinking about time, and love, and how little glitches in the brain keep us from living a joyous life.

Last night I sat with someone I love inside an idling car, staring at eyes, and then snow, and then eyes, and then snow.  The feeling was temporary; as temporary as the snow. It felt like eternity, but it wasn’t eternal.

I realized I don’t know how to process this life outside the lens of eternity. 

Everything used to be the long game.  The sell for the next phase of existence.  The mortal coil was the pre-game.  It made pain more bearable.  Suffering could be understood because it would end.  Eventually, all would be made right.

I still process things through the lens of eternity.  When I love, I don’t know how to view it as anything but forever.  It puts an unrealistic weight on every feeling I have.  An “I love you” is forever.  Rejection is forever.  Indifference is forever.  All things are for a single purpose, the endless melding of souls with the ultimate. 

Bazan once wrote, “the crew have killed the captain, but they still can hear his voice.” 

I no longer have a captain, or a boat, or a crew.  But the voice of eternity is still haunting my feelings every day.  I don’t know what it’s like to know someone I love is a temporary love.  That a hobby won’t last forever.  That friends will die.  None of it makes sense to me. 

I’m beginning to feel that I’ve lived too safe a life.  I think I’d like to little less safely.  Take more risks.  Enter conflict voluntarily.  Kiss someone I know I’ll never see again. 

I have to learn to live a temporary life.  The weight of eternity is souring the best things I have without my permission.  I need to hold the people I love with a weaker grip.  Learn to detach from places and people and things a little more, to give them the freedom to come and go without it meaning so much to me.  With attachment comes suffering, and I am tired of suffering. 
Following the time in the car, I returned home, picked up a guitar, and sang songs to a small group of people who had taken mushrooms, were sitting near the fire and watching the snow fall. For a moment, I knew how to live in the temporary.  Here's to more moments like that in the near future.


Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Other Side of the Door

I attended Quaker meeting by myself today.  The past 18 months I’ve attended maybe 3 times, never alone.  I’ve been feeling the pull to come back recently.  Not sure why.

The meeting has an interim pastor I hadn’t heard speak before.  I liked her style.  Scattered thoughts, loosely connected, but full of interesting questions.  Today, she asked us to imagine that outside the church door was a surprise, just for us.  It’s the thing you’d be willing to climb over pews, and shove people out of the way for.  And when we think of that surprise, what comes to mind?

I had various things come to mind as what kind of surprise would prompt me to scale the pews and run.  Most prominently was a mind that contained joy and peace, but was not susceptible to anxiety or fear.  I would climb mountains to reach those heights.  I considered a life of no responsibilities, where my days were spent in conversation with people I love, or was curious about.  I’ve always wanted to retire early so I could pursue that kind of life.

It took about 20 minutes before I realized the thought that hadn’t crossed my mind; An existing God.

When the absence of that idea dawned on me, I’m pretty sure I froze for several minutes.  And then I hid my face with my hands, and sobbed for several minutes in the back of a church, by myself, hoping nobody would notice.

I’ve been fighting the good fight with atheism for a long time now.  The pursuit for something outside the natural world has been a good friend to me.  It sent me on long, wonderful journeys.  It introduced me to new people and ideas, and provided several of my best friends. 

But I’ve been aware for over a year that I needed to let that question go.  Searching for God had stopped making my life better.  I once wrote a poem about sitting on top of a flight of stairs, always hoping God would show up and open the door (link here).  I used to imagine I’d be on those stairs forever. 

Today, I realized I’m not there anymore.  The question, and the need for the question, have left me. 

In my tears today, I held that question, the question that had tormented me for so long.  I gave it the respect it deserved, thanking it for keeping me company on some painful and dark days. 

And by myself in the back of a church, I let it go.