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: Study

A key to any discipline and to the subject itself is study without being an expert. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about the importance of being a beginner. Discispline can be a study of absolutely anything. And it always starts with a beginning.

The change in my boys as they’ve grown has been palpable. From eager, curious learners to cynical, know-it-alls. Not always, thank goodness. Often enough, they approach a problem as if they’ve already seen everything and cannot be surprised or moved to wonder. Stepping back, I ask myself how much of that is the natural progression of tweenism, how much the vast flow of information and Siri to answer every question, and how much is my mirror.

I raced through high school and college, seeing no point in slowing down. When I graduated law school, I was relatively young (23), and it was no selling point. At a time I needed most to embrace being a beginner, I thought I needed to know all and be all, all on my own.

Whether weight loss, heart disease, diabetes or finances, debt recovery, and investment – or any topic on earth – I can choose to enter again as a beginner or as a cynic who already knows what should be done. In lots of situations, lots of us do know what needs to be done. Cognitively, we know how weight is lost, what stymies heart disease, what needs to happen to course correct. So when we receive an opportunity to learn, we may say, “No thanks. I have an MBA in finance. There’s nothing you can teach me in a personal finance class.” We leave a Sunday morning sermon and gripe, “Well, that wasted my time! I already know how to avoid fill-in-the-blank.” Our kids’ schools offer classes on literacy, and we give thanks we aren’t required to attend. Our companies require attendance to re-learn the badness of sexual harassment and we all sigh because everybody knows what it is, that it still happens, that classes alone are insufficient. Our doctors tell us to reduce stress, and we think, “Mmhmm. You first.”

In part, growing older often means developing this hard outer shell that resists the very idea of being taught, let alone enjoying it or finding worth therein.

You know, I actually made a rule recently that my kids weren’t allowed to ask Siri anything for a day. What became clear is that there is still plenty they want to learn. Why work for something when a nice lady or British gentlemen can answer in a serious or pithy way?

I cannot control the cynicism of age or the ubiquity of Siri-esque searches for knowledge, but I can control the kind of mirror I am. I can read a recipe, and slow down long enough to follow the steps. I can sign up for that class I already cognitively understand but have yet to put into practice. I can return to my breath, to mindfulness, to being instead of doing. I can log onto Khan Academy next to my kid and study history, music, Pixar storytelling. I can be found reading nonfiction on topics of parenting, writing, art, living, or reading fiction to learn about the human condition and spirit.

I can mirror to my boys (and myself) that curiosity has no age threshold. That being a beginner can be synonymous with excitement and courage and remembering who we were before we knew it all.

Someday, Lord willing, my boys will grow all the way up and move out into the world. I will still be here. And I will need to learn. How to embrace them living separate lives. How to not first be introduced as mom. How to. Forever. In all directions.

When you live with chronic depression and anxiety, you can be robbed of many things. Among them, curiosity and entertaining the beginning. In depression, beginning again can signal that I stopped again. Failed again. Fell down the rabbit hole again. Beginning is not exciting. It’s nerve-wracking. I desperately want to not need to begin again. I want this beginning to be my last beginning in that it lasts.

With anxiety, beginning can be triggering. Beginning anything with anxiety means new people, new places, new situations and tools and plans and schedules and routines and on and on and on. It means a lot of coping and not a lot of thrilling.

Here’s what I can say to both depression and anxiety: the beginning is real, meaningful, exciting, and sometimes only calculable in recovery. I celebrate your beginning, even if you can’t yet. Because it means you are here. It means you are here. Embracing the beginning the tiniest bit mirrors to yourself that beginnings can be positive, good, worthwhile, and eventually exciting. Hang in there. Keep beginning.

I challenge you, as I’ve challenged myself this year, to be a curious beginner. Start something with a wide-eyed, uncynical clarity and amusement. It can be dinner. Or literally anything else. Take a deep breath, drop your age-old sneer at not knowing, and get started!