My wife and I have a little game we like to play: it’s the “stop being a negative Nelly" game. You see, we are for the most part a very positive couple, we always try to look for the best in a situation, always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and try not to be over-critical of elected officials and McDonalds coffee. But, every now and then one of us gets in a “funk” due to the burdens of work, finances, kids, etc. They all pile up until one of us just throws in the emotional towel. You know it’s time to play the game when one of us says…
When those words are spoken it’s game on. Depending on the circumstances, the game can be played with a shoulder to cry on or a swift (figurative) kick in the ass. After 15 years of marriage we've gotten pretty good at this game, but sometimes the tears won’t come no matter how often the shoulder is offered and the kick in the ass just becomes one more, well, kick in the ass. And those are the times that no one wins. To be completely honest, I’m usually the one that is “done” and that’s when I retreat into my own thoughts, as dangerous as they sometimes are, and no matter how hard I want to ignore it or pretend it’s not there - I find the truth:
“What we see depends mainly on what we look for.”
Sir John Lubbock gets the credit for saying that a long time ago, but it’s a truth that I think each and every one of us knows deep down inside, in those dark closets of the soul where we keep the other truths that we hate to face when losing the game, truths that remind us that much of the fear and negativity we are dealing with only have such a strong foothold because we've laced our fingers together and motioned for them to hop on.
The Funk, the rut, the bad place, whatever label we give it - each one of us eventually finds ourselves delving into the dark side of the soul, the place where we know our focus is skewed, but we are too unmotivated and soul-sick to do anything about it. So we sit and sulk or amble forward like a zombie with concrete shoes.
And this is the time to ask ourselves the question: what are we looking for? Are we looking for the pain of failure and rejection, for the negative, or are we looking past our present condition and experiences for the silver lining? I’m a sucker for old movies and one of my favorites is The African Queen with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. It tells the story of a gin-swilling riverboat owner/captain who is persuaded by a strait-laced missionary to use his boat to attack an enemy warship during World War II. In a pivotal moment in the film, the two main characters have had to literally pull their boat (the African Queen) through a never-ending swamp of reeds and grass, and it gets to the point when they resign to their fate and prepare to give up and die of thirst and hunger in the middle of nowhere; however, as the camera pulls back and we see the two laying on the boat exhausted and defeated surround by a sea of obstacles, we get to see from our now higher vantage point that they are just yards away from open water. We see the end of their tortuous hard work, but from their angle all they see is never ending hardship. This is a dramatic representation of most of our struggles, but when you’re stuck in the midst of unyielding difficulties it’s almost impossible to see the path that has been cleared ahead. But just like the game I play with my wife, the key is having someone(s) around us that can look above and beyond our present condition and encourage us to keep moving forward, even if it’s not what we want to hear at the time, because we are too scratched, bruised and beaten from the journey to do anything but survive for one more moment. Hope can be heavy and hard to carry and is always easier to lift when we share it with someone else.
As we have been spending this month looking at some tools and ideas that can help when it comes to ‘spring cleaning the soul’ it’s very important to remember that the job is much easier when we have someone around to help out, even if we’re not ready to allow them to get their hands dirty digging through much of the long neglected clutter and baggage. It’s always best to at least let that someone know that we are about to do some heavy-duty cleaning so that they can help us draw out the courage that we often times can’t find on our own. The great spiritual philosopher and Author Henry J.M. Nouwen says the following about this type of relationship:
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The person who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in the hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
My challenge to all of us is to identify those people in our lives that are willing to play the game with us, to support us and encourage us sometimes with words, but more often simply with their presence. And to be that kind of friend to others.
Erik Ewing is the Program Director for The Authenticity Project; you can contact Erik at TheAuthenticityProject@gmail.com.