Falling Apart

“At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.” ― George Orwell

I told my dentist the other day that I was in my declining years. These days, each time I visit someone in the healthcare profession it’s bad news. Something big needs to be shifted, repaired, pulled-up, re-examined again and again or prescribed. I’m not sure if I’m going to make it to the end all in one piece. When I was younger, I just don’t remember all this excessive misery associated with keeping on. I think about it each time I bend over to pick up something off the floor in the kitchen. How long has that been such a pain to do?

My mental faculties are also starting to leak out of my ears as I sleep. If I don’t do it right now, I’m sure to forget a few minutes from now. I’m now more conscious of being unconscious. Does that make any sense?

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“When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened. It is sad to go to pieces like this but we all have to do it.” ― Mark Twain

Actually I was reading last night and it helped me realize that much of what I’m experiencing might be related to being locked up like a hostage for a year – and having to completely change how I work and live. The other dramatic emotional and cognitive catastrophe that I haven’t had the space to process is my own grief over the loss of my spouse. She passed away to heaven in the Fall before the Spring pandemic hit.

“I wanted to get the tears out of the way so I could act sensibly.” ― Joan Didion

Surely that’s part of what’s going on with me, the lethargy, the cognitive fugue, the confusion and even the disassociation from reality (what does that look like these days?). What about everyone else? Seems like each time I turn on the news our civilization is experiencing some sort of existential crises.

My own life is so often real only in the ways that I perceive it to be.

The current world around me, family dynamics, relationships that are changing, work and interests – all that’s happening in this swirling context that is life – is actually real to me only as far as I perceive it to be. I’m defining situations all the time. I hope to be accurate but so often my moods, fears and knowledge are turning my vision in different directions – sometimes away from the truth. Often what I want isn’t the truth but confirmation, comfort, or control. It’s the same for the whole world. A world with a cell phone stuck in their face.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” ― William Blake

Why do many in our society feel so much disconnection and confusion?

I’m certain that the pandemic and lock-down has been at the root of much of our social feelings of calamity. But I also believe that there’s more to it than that. Something deeper. The way that individuals and groups perceive their situations – the worldview they use to define their reality – helps to explain why members of a society can function most of the time and, some times, can’t seem to get even the simplest goals accomplished.

I was working online recently with colleagues from other universities. We were examining extensive research a graduate student had completed on the college experience of students who are in the minority. The research was conducted using surveys of students from across the country. As we talked about a number of variables, all I could imagine was the vast difference in the ways that todays students might define some of these terms. Were we really getting accurate feedback on the research topic we intended to measure? Or were we seeing a wide range of different perceptions. I was afraid we were ending up with eighteen different versions of “when was the War of 1812?”

Theses days, I sit and listen to the “talking heads” on the television and I shake my head at all the confusion about basic definitions. I realize that some time this is deliberate, but mostly I suspect that people are just being ignorant. All the talk that’s swirling around in our information drowned society and much of it only generates confusion, not clarity.

“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” ― Mark Twain

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“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” ― Robertson Davies

Maybe the best moral to my current story is that perception isn’t always accurate. It’s distracted by our physical and mental situations. Perception is often subconsciously used as a tool to manipulate others. So, here are the lessons I need to be learning as I sometimes feel like I’m falling apart and living in a society that might also be coming to pieces:

Don’t personalize everythingpeople (including me) are shaped by their context much more than anyone realizes.

It’s actually very liberating to listen to where others are coming from and to put words, comments and ideas into a larger framework. No one is an original. We are products of our family, our times, and early experiences. So much of why I do what I do is because of the roads I’ve been on and the people who still live in all of my cabinets.

Don’t ignore the wooden plank in your eye, while you criticize the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eyelashes (Jesus) – Matthew 7:4

Pay more attention to your conversations – how much time are you talking and how much are you listening?

We all start talking for many reasons. Not everyone is good at hearing themselves. This piece of advice takes concentration and practice. I’m still working on this one – mostly failing. I have to pay attention before social encounters or I’ll go into autopilot (and talk, and talk, and talk!).

Even a fool who keeps quiet is considered wise, for when he keeps his mouth shut, he appears clever. – Proverbs 17:28

Ask people genuine questions about themselves and their ideasdemonstrate real interest in others by going past the surface.

When you ask questions and listen for answers, it keeps you from talking too much (see #2). It helps you demonstrate your real self. When you ask questions you get the chance to go deeper, find out more about context (see #1), and practice listening. I was sharing with a friend the other day and I wanted to know some details about his life so I could frame his experience. But I told him, right from the start, that I wanted to focus more on his feelings than on the facts. I am typically never that conscious during conversations. Let’s all hope I get better at it.

We should stop looking out for our own interests and instead focus on the people living and breathing around us. – 1 Corinthians 10:24

Once I got my second vaccination I began to feel as if I (and civilization) was moving forward, inching toward an end to all of this turmoil, fear and uncertainty. Going to all those doctor appointments helps me to feel as if I’m a little more in control of my decline. Our medical care is so incredible these days. The fact we can immunize half the population so quickly is also unbelievable, isn’t it? As we venture into our post-pandemic lives, there are so many bits of advice floating around out there. Most is about lessons we should have learned.

“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.” ― Wallace Stevens

When those feelings of falling apart surface, that’s the time to find ways to fall together

What I want to do is slow down and think more deliberately about my perceptions, about my situation, other people and myself. What about you?

“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.” ― C.S. Lewis

Great is Thy Faithfulness

“Those with less curiosity or ambition just mumble that God works in mysterious ways. I intend to catch him in the act.” ― Damien Echols

There really are a number of urgent matters that ought to be worried about. I’m getting older every second. More visits to doctors and strange groans herald the decline and fall of what once was. Friends are retiring, like birds fleeing from the cage. My own future seems so uncertain, less predicted as it’s supposed to be with all this planning and saving. Just looking at my growing list of big projects is making me awfully tired, deep inside. 

“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” ― Robert Frost

There's a squirrel on my roof! :) : squirrels

I have a big skylight in the kitchen. It’s like a drum when it rains or the squirrels scratch on it in the summer mornings to drink the condensation. It rained hard the other evening echoing against the walls of my little house. There are all kinds noises in my house. I think someone is prowling around in there with me. He’s not being as quiet as he should. Of course, there are other truths. As I move from room to room, faces look at me from all the photos, from all the years, from all the memories. I am living in a haunted house. Not all ghosts bring dread or fear.

“When you’re young, you always feel that life hasn’t yet begun—that “life” is always scheduled to begin next week, next month, next year, after the holidays—whenever. But then suddenly you’re old and the scheduled life didn’t arrive. You find yourself asking, ‘Well then, exactly what was it I was having—that interlude—the scrambly madness—all that time I had before?” ― Douglas Coupland

Showing people photos and video clips off my phone has become a terribly bothersome habit. I keep kicking myself and promising to stop. Everyone has their own pics of children and silly animals. Of course, mine are the most incredible. I hope I am getting better about not dominating conversations at social gathers (as few and far between as they’ve been during this time). No one else is ever as interested in your life as you are. They aren’t supposed to be.

All of these images are a contagion for me. Like a beneficial virus. Each time I see a face or figure dancing across the screen I just smile or laugh. It’s like enjoying another course in a life-long feast. 

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins” ― T.S. Eliot

My wife was the coffee drinker in the family. But these days I have been making a morning trip a few times a week. It’s been going on for a few years now and the personnel turnover really hasn’t been happening at my store. That means they’ve got my order down (aging turns one into a creature of habit). I usually show up in my funny professor costume, so I stick out and am easy to remember. While the coffee store staff aren’t wearing name tags, they get my first name for my order. So, as time as gone by, I’m called by name when I walk in.

Multiracial Friends Drinking Coffee Together Stockvideoklipp (helt  royaltyfria) 32241940 | Shutterstock

What if I’m going to the coffee store just to hear my name and experience that familiarity? I usually don’t have to say my order. I don’t drink the whole cup, it’s gone cold. Why am I doing this a couple times each week?

In addition to routines (so many have gone out the window this past year), humans need regular social contact – even with strangers. It’s the regular part of it that matters. Trivial banter with the cashier, smiling at the guy bagging groceries, waving at the neighbor whose name you can’t remember – it’s all important because it keeps us connected each day to who we are. We’re people just like all the rest.

And did you know, God sends people, just like you, across the path every day, to remind how fragile and simple reaching out can be.

Perception is a topic that I sometimes teach students to think about.

  • Ours is often shaped by internal cognitive biases. We usually “see” what we expect, and miss what we aren’t looking for.
  • We unconsciously interpret non-verbal cues from others to figure out feelings and how we should respond. Mostly this is unconscious and happens in seconds. We now have a whole generation of young people raised on cell phones who have had very little practice with non-verbal communication. 
  • You’ve heard of first impressions, right? Most of us make judgments about the entire person based on just a few quick impressions. Typically, people are very confident about the perceptions they come up with after a single first impression.

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” ― W.B. Yeats

I think God is doing things around us and in our lives all the time. I don’t think God is a good luck charm or is in the business of empowering us to live out our own hopes and dreams. He’s not an American televangelist. But God is working out his plan all the time. His love for us surrounds in so many ways through the hands of so many others. He wants everyone to be a part of his life. 

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My haunted house of memories is filled with God’s presence. The smiles and greeting at the coffee store each week remind me that God is near and uses any circumstance and routine. All my dear friends and relatives that endure a visit or meal with me keep my head up above the water and are God’s way of showing that he’s interested in my life. He keeps sending people into my life to patiently and faithfully remain. So many, sticking it out with me. They also remind me to do the same with others along my own path. 

“If you have never known the power of God’s love, then maybe it is because you have never asked to know it – I mean really asked, expecting an answer.” ― Frederick Buechner

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father
There is no shadow of turning with Thee
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be
Great is Thy faithfulness, great is Thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me

 

Believing is Seeing

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Pity me that the heart
is slow to learn
what the swift mind
beholds at every turn

– Edna St. Vincent Milay

When you’re looking at the world and all its traffic racing past you every day, how do you tend to see things? What shapes your “definition of the situation” as you navigate through all of those opportunities and obstacles? What do you see when you get a glance of that mirror deep in your own heart? Is this who you thought you were going to be at this point in your life?

At the end of the day, are you being transformed – even your perceptions and all that excess baggage buried deep in the basement?

Your eye is a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is good, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is bad, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is!  – Matthew 6:22-23

One clue to the state of your transformation is your eyesight. Our perception of reality is connected to how we think and feel. Attitudes shape perceptions. Perceptions shape attitudes. It’s usually easy to figure out how someone sees and thinks by listening to what comes out of their mouth. Have you spent much time listening to yourself lately? Real transformation effects the whole you.

…let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.  – Romans 12:2

I thought I would get there one day. That I’d finally cross all the bridges and arrive in that vast field of dreams.  I’d be there having learned the hard lessons and would be wise. What a bitter revelation now, to see that field so very far away, almost beyond reach. Transformation never stops, it keeps on working, rooting out all the stubborn holdouts that cling to this life. I guess it’s a good sign, that this essential work is still happening in my hardheaded soul. But of course, my pride is bruised and my ego is not a happy camper.  I still need to be saved, just about every single day, usually from myself.

“Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and the heart has turned to stone.”   ― Thomas Merton