Discipline: Continue in Uncertainty

One aspect of discipline most Americans know intimately this year: continue in uncertainty with the tools at hand.

November 2016 brought a crushing blow to many optimists (and also a crushing blow to everybody else, whether they knew it or not). Un/Fortunately, I’m a pessimist via depression and anxiety. The election did not surprise me. But, like much of the world, it saddened me and weighed heavily on me. It frightened me on behalf of lots of people I love. I wrote about a little ring I bought myself with the words “be here now” stamped into it. I had bought the thing to remind myself not to be brought down by ruminations or future fantasies. I used it last November to ground myself in the uncertainty of the moment.

Even though I knew the theme for 2017 last November, it had not yet gestated into anything I could write about last November. Or December. Or January. It was late in February before I introduced a theme I’d been thinking about, dreaming about, and working towards for months.

Beyond what was happening in the dizzying news cycle, I tried to act like everything was normal while waiting to hear whether we were moving. So, I wrote about parental connectedness as a discipline. Having begun reading about my theme from a few great resources, I introduced the resources as a sort of accountability: hey, I’m doing this thing, I promise. The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook got me started on a focal point (mindfulness). I talked about morning pages.

Then life got much too real for me to stick to safe, surface statements on the greatness of discipline. You see, discipline started to require something of me. Depression resurged when I found out we were moving. I basically went dark, consumed with the struggle to live and to keep going.

I didn’t blog at all during the move and settling. What could I say? I had distilled no lessons. Everything was survival all the time, until the slow crawl back toward light.

In August, I ventured forth to talk about raising boys while white because Charlottesville happened. Because I don’t know if I’m doing enough. But I’m doing something. And I know a lot of other people who also don’t know if they’re doing enough. Starting with raising decent kids who love humans – not the worst start.

Enter hurricane, evacuation, return, and the decision to move back to Oklahoma, which was only very loosely connected to the foregoing.

November 8, 2017, I sat down at this keyboard and wondered how a work-in-progress like myself could add anything to the cacophony that can be the internet. It turned out that I had distilled several lessons over the last year, and I was finally in a place I could communicate them. To myself if no one else. I went back to the beginning, the first thing I encountered on this discipline journey: a prayer to increase my capacity to wonder. Without that lesson, that prayer that I got so wrong, none of the others would have shaken out quite the same.

This is the next-to-last post on my discipline theme, but the lessons will reach much further. Why did I spill nearly 500 words recounting what my blog archives could have told you? Because it was my path through uncertainty.

I used morning pages (though I did switch to handwritten) and I formed a The Artist’s Way sacred circle with three other fantastic artists. I read loads of books and learned and pushed. I attended therapy and took my medications. I kept going. I wish I had a special equation to hand you or keep in my hip pocket enlightening the way to get through uncertainty (especially the uncertainty of depression). I don’t. It may only be in retrospect that we can see the tools that were at hand, the ones that carried us bit by bit through it.

When I look back up at that still-dizzying news cycle, whatever else I feel, which can be a lot, I am thankful. For free press. For brave men and women who do their jobs well – whether governance, investigation, or communication. For other brave people who tell the truth when it benefits them nothing. For those fighting a two-generation war over which they have no control. For makers. For sustainers. For students and teachers. For healers and providers and the people doing the work no one else wants to do or remembers to appreciate. For families, however defined, and for friendships that lift up others. For my people, who kept and keep faith with me through it all. All of these people are part of surviving uncertainty. Tools are for boxes, and we should use them whenever handy. People, though, they are for everything.

Take good care of both.

Discipline: Spiritual Disciplines Handbook

I touched on this last week, but measuring growth in discipline is not a thing my spreadsheets have allowed. When I finally received one of the recommended* books on spiritual disciplines [Spiritual Disciplines Handbook], it affirmed my big fear: discipline is not a well-measured affair.

The author, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, went so far as to caution readers against reading the whole book through. She advised the reader to let the Spirit guide her to a single discipline to address at a time. I took the inventory in the back of the book and found several areas to address, but I tried to be led to the one that can change me most. I ended up at mindfulness.

Mindfulness! Is the author joking? Have I been pranked? Or maybe I’m following more than I realize. Which is why I need mindfulness.

Each discipline in the book is introduced with the same matrix that describes: desire, definition, scripture, practice points, and God-given fruit. The desire for the mindfulness discipline is “to live wholeheartedly in the present moment, alert to God and without judgment.”

Now, ever since I was in the third grade and referred to an Air Force psychiatrist, people have guided me toward mindfulness. That doctor, my mom, my husband, my therapist. Everyone who knows the tiniest slice of my anxistence [I made that up, it’s anxiety + existence, not a typo].

And I’ve worked on it. In fits and starts. Most recently, I bought myself a ring with these words stamped into the metal: be here now. It’s a talisman, a string around my finger, a touchstone for remembering where and when I live. Here and now. But, guys, the struggle. It’s so real. I want to ruminate. I want to project the future. I also want to be anxiety-free. Or do I?

That’s what my therapist said just before Christmas, “You say you want this, but I’m not sure you do.” Ouch. And here I am, in the moment, trying guidance-by-Spirit, and even it returns me to mindfulness.

I could go the whole fake-it-til-you-make-it avenue. Set aside time every day to meditate with an app, scripture, or silence. Nudge out all the niggling little thoughts that bore into this moment like so many particularly pernicious weevils. But that’s not worked for me. The anxiety – that is my comfort zone, my safe space, because I already know not to expect much from it. It won’t let me down. It will never stop feeding me more worry. It will never leave me alert to God and without judgment. And my favorite listed God-given fruit – greater capacity for wonder – remains cleanly edged out.

Faking it won’t work. It has to be real. Wholehearted, I think the book suggested. This is what ‘work out your faith with fear and trembling’ means. The fear is letting go of the earthly and hurtful worry that makes me feel in control. Have you ever been tethered to something and just let go? I haven’t. That’s the trembling. I don’t like trembling. But if I don’t do something tremble-worthy, I’m not actually working out my faith.

I can’t tell you what spiritual disciplines you need to practice. But it might be a good starting point to fill in the blanks: The fear is letting go of the earthly and hurtful _____________ that make(s) me feel ________________. Then define the discipline that prompts the fear, that makes you feel the opposite, that requires some trembling. We’re all works in progress. Let me know how you are growing discipline in your life.

*In case you’re CoC and trigger shy of the book or author, the recommendation came from a minister of a local Church of Christ, and I now also recommend it. However, if it leads you to apostasy, let me know and I’ll a) apologize and b) stop referring to it, maybe.