The Flood: a depression journey

Before the flood, my valley was beautiful.
Then the rains began, harder than they ever had before.
The waters rose quickly, and I could barely hold my own against the rush.
The flood raged and swept me away. I flailed to keep my head above the surface and began to despair of life.
Miraculously, I was swept against a staircase that rose from the flood. I had just enough strength to climb the slippery steps.
Somehow I reached the top — and the rain had stopped. The sun just began to show through the clouds, and I felt that I could rest. Surely the worst was over.
As the floodwaters receded, I descended the stairs. I was grieved to find that everything beautiful in my valley was dead and decaying.
Worse, everywhere lay jagged piles of debris that scratched and poked me if I got too close. I grieved the valley I had once known, realizing that it was gone forever.
After I wept, I began to look around me and see that life was starting to return. Even in the wreckage and rot, there was beauty to be found. I began to accept the new normal of my valley, and accepted the task of tending and nurturing it for the next season.

Undone by undone

This is a series of thoughts about Season One of the TV series undone. Rating: TV-MA. Content warnings: Language, car accidents, suicide. It assumes you have already watched the series, and contains spoilers for Season One.

Alma knows her life is a mess, and is hoping for a quick fix. They never happen.

She ends up learning to connect to the world.

This is the true journey, not the magical poof! that solves all problems and erases a painful past. In the final scene, she hopes to see her father emerge, but — I believe — instead sees a glorious sunrise over the ancient temple. Her father will not appear, but now she is is on a new journey toward wholeness.

Jacob, her father — at least the one in her head — has a different journey. At first, as in life, he’s very driven, single-minded, and driven to accomplish his objective. He feels fully justified in lying and unethical behavior for the greater good. He has no doubt that he is (and was) the “good guy.”

In one moment, he realizes that he was not the hero he thought he was. His response is despair; to give up.

Despite all of his research — and even some practice of — spiritual connection, he remains a typical Western detached thinker. Untouched and unmoved, he sees all as a means to an end.

Since he is physically dead, Jacob’s journey becomes Alma’s. She, too, begins to see that she was not “the good guy.” But she now has an opportunity to grow and move toward wholeness.

In her mind, her father’s trajectory has changed; he has now made the choice to stay rather than leave. She is beginning to make the same choice.

She is at peace with the end of her father’s journey, because it means closure — like two streams merging to create a third, more rich and robust.

She had been living under the burden of her father’s absence (betrayal? neglect?) and it was a convenient excuse for her failing life.

She has had these two journeys going on in her head for 17 years, both denying and trying to integrate them. It took the crisis of the car accident to show her that this journey was not healthy or sustainable — if she didn’t deal with these two broken streams, she would continue in this pattern forever.

Was all this “just” schizophrenia? Probably. But as we watch Alma we see how the inner landscape is a real part of us. Does it happen in her head? Yes, but so does everything, for all of us. Our somatic, subjective interpretation of the past and present is reality.

The presence of mental illness doesn’t mean we can just discard and disregard everything we experience. Our lived experience is our journey. Like a human trying to ride an elephant, we don’t have control so much as influence over the journey.

Jacob trains Alma for his own goals, and Alma learns. But Alma integrates the training in a way that Jacob never could. She uses it intuitively to train the elephant, to guide her inner self.

So while she is outwardly still hoping for a magical fix, inwardly she knows that it’s the long journey that counts. She ends at peace with the messiness to come.

Everything is creating you

Thoughts on Remergence by Alyssa Coffin.

In my earlier days as a Christian, I would often hear sanctification described as an art metaphor: I was a block of stone and God was chipping away everything that didn’t look like Christ. As if we were all merely passive rocks, and our differing shapes and sizes made no difference — each and every sculpture had to be identical.¹

I also heard salvation described as the “good” flip side of demonic possession — we were to be “possessed” by God’s spirit.

These metaphors seem to reduce humans to raw materials; or broken and faulty devices which can only be “fixed” by remaking/remolding them according to the Platonic blueprint². Very either/or.

Instead, it seems to me that the true image/incarnation of Christ is in infinite expressions of beauty. Both/and. Everyone and everything is gloriously beautiful, but also often twisted and poisoned.

In this view, sanctification is pruning and healing, to better bring out the unique beauty that is Christ incarnate. Unique and diverse, not a single Platonic “perfect” expression. A divine wholeness that incorporates weakness and imperfections.

As Richard Rohr says, “God loves all things by becoming them.” The incarnation wasn’t a one-and-done thing. Christ is creating everything.

And Christ in everything is creating you.³

¹ I actually think this can be a decent metaphor, but we have a tendency to take our metaphors too far and too literally.

² Christian thought has been significantly influenced by Ancient Greek philosophy. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but we do need to be aware of pitfalls in taking it too far.

³The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr

Is it any wonder?

Is it any wonder that Western Christianity is failing? Since the Enlightenment we’ve been trying to prove that the Bible is 100% true, inerrant, and infallible — in the historical/scientific sense. A good example of this, of course, is Answers in Genesis. But it has crept into our church culture in more subtle ways.

Years ago, a Christian classical school opened in our city and we were very excited because we believed strongly in the trivium — the three-fold path of learning that follows the developmental process of the child. They also believed in Sola Scriptura, but what harm could that do?

Too slowly, however, we realized that there was a deeper worldview at work: the “clear teachings” of the Bible superseded any fallible human knowledge.  Psalm 51:5 says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me,” then clearly all negative behavior in an infant or toddler is sinful and must be punished. The headmaster of the school would slap his infant’s hands when he threw food off his high chair. They paid lip service to child development, but clearly regarded it as suspect in the light of original sin and total depravity.

We finally left the school, but not until a great deal of damage had been done to our children’s faith.

In this worldview, there is no such thing as interpretation; the Bible is extremely clear on almost every topic. Any human knowledge that contradicts it is therefore immediately suspect if not obviously ideologically motivated. The very idea that we may need to periodically re-examine our interpretation of the Bible is liberalism, secular humanism, and so on.

In this way, Western Christianity has reduced the Bible to a set of flat cerebral statements of fact to be accepted, instead of a majestic story that can penetrate us to the heart and transform us from the inside out.

Over centuries — and especially since the Enlightenment — we have gathered a great quantity of scientific and historical knowledge about the cosmos, the history of our planet, and the human psyche.  Not surprisingly, this knowledge has diverged from what a “flat reading” of the Bible tells us. There are even fringe groups that still believe in a flat earth and physical firmament! Even the hard-core Young Earth Creationists disavow them, though they must use impressive mental gymnastics to explain why their own beliefs are so different. And why do they believe this? Scriptural authority.

Like most younger people, our children have grown up in a post-Enlightenment culture, and accept the scientific consensus on global warming, evolution, the age of the earth, and so on. When they encounter the Bible — and Jesus — in this environment, they see nothing but an rigid alternate reality. This alternate reality claims that it has never changed; that it based on God’s unchanging, perfect, inerrant, and infallible Word.

And yet, history proves them wrong; during the American Civil War, many churches believed that slavery was acceptable because of Scriptural authority. In our own city, many church splits took place because of this. But now, you will be hard-pressed to find a church that believes the Bible justifies slavery. Why? Our interpretation changed. But could our current interpretation be incorrect? Of course not, because we aren’t interpreting.

These younger folks are faced with this rigid alternate reality, plus the history that puts the lie to it. Is it any wonder that they reject the whole affair?

Toxic faith environment

A toxic faith environment — like any toxic environment — doesn’t mean that all (or even most of) the people in it are deliberately evil.

For example, when I was immersed in the evangelical church, I heard a lot about how sad our post-Christian culture was. So many couples are in counseling — they just need Jesus! So many people are depressed — they just need Jesus! And so on.

Then I became “one of those people” who was depressed. What had my environment taught me? That I obviously wasn’t trusting Jesus enough. That I never had trusted Jesus enough. But I couldn’t do it myself, I just had to “Let go and let God,” but apparently I wasn’t even doing that. Then there was the inevitable guilt because of my inability to apparently even let go.

I’m sure the people in my church were well-intentioned — after all, I’m not saying that people don’t need Jesus. But a subtle (or not-so-subtle) American individualism underlies much of its teaching. When I realized I was broken, my instinct was to blame myself and not to press into community.  I heard that community telling me that Jesus Himself would fix me.

I realize now that I should have known that we all are healed together in community as the body of Christ. Why didn’t I then?

Ex Nihilo: Why it’s okay to throw away code – CodeStock 2018

I gave this talk at CodeStock 2018. Some of the slides are (semi) original artwork, inspired by ReverentGeek and Schlock Mercenary.

Watch the video of the talk here, or view the slides here.

If you have suggestions on how I could improve the talk, please contact me! My Twitter handle is @spamagnet.

… and yes, I need to stop saying, “But here’s the thing.”

Abtract

Managers often have a bad reaction to hearing developers say that they need to throw away or rewrite code. Source code is expensive, taking hours/weeks/months/years of painstaking work to develop and maintain. “Why couldn’t we have done it right the first time?” “Is there any way to salvage the code and reuse it somewhere else?”

This comes from a faulty view of code as the end product; in reality, the end product is the service that the code provides.

To illustrate this, take an extended construction metaphor. When constructing a house or commercial building, the blueprint is a fairly minor part of the cost. You don’t want to scrimp or cut corners on the blueprint because you run the risk of far more expensive problems during the construction phase.

In software, however, the construction (build) phase is nearly free. Not only that, but a newly built “house” can be duplicated and deployed as many times as you like.

Semi-original artwork for CodeStock talk

In a couple of weeks, I’m giving a talk at CodeStock 2018 called Ex Nihilo: Why it’s okay to throw away code. It’s based on an extended analogy of software as a city — but a city built by nanobots out of nothing in a digital post-scarcity environment.

I wanted some fun, engaging slides — and what better nanobot design than Howard Tayler’s from Schlock Mercenary? (If you haven’t heard of it, and you’re a science fiction fan, set aside a block of 8-10 hours to read it. You have been warned.)

I contacted them, and Sandra Tayler graciously gave me permission to use the nanobot designs. Many thanks to Howard and Sandra!

Without further ado, here are my first imperfect pieces of art featuring the nanobots:

If you want to know the context, you’ll have to come to my talk at CodeStock. (I might post a video afterwards.)

 

Once the world seemed new

Once the world seemed new
full of promise
beckoning
smiling.

I was knighted, sent
to derring-do
fearlessly
without fail.

But I found that I failed
and hurt
and feared
and did not heal.

The fault must be in me
I thought
I felt
I feared.

I redoubled the beknighted deeds
to prove them wrong
or prove them right
I could not tell.

But hurt without heal cannot last
I fell
crushed
seemingly for good.

Long I wandered shadowy lands
no faith
no hope
but not bereft of love.

For love descended
and stayed
and hurt
and healed.

Shattered, yet reknit
slowly
ascending
to light.

I brought with me a part
of that shadow
undesired
yet inseparable.

Now the world seems old
full of promise
beckoning
yet sadder and wiser than before.

Learning from the Holocaust

On January 27 of each year, we remember the Holocaust. We vow to never forget the 6 million Jews, plus hundreds of thousands of Romani, disabled, and homosexual people who were slaughtered by the Nazis. For the most part, being anti-Nazi is not controversial. The question is, have we learned the right lessons?

When political leaders (generally of the opposing party) propose a policy that we feel strongly about, many of us jump straight to comparing them to Hitler. On the Internet, this is so common that in 1990, Mike Godwin coined the adage that asserts that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” (This is commonly referred to as Godwin’s Law.)

On the one hand, this is only natural — we have a deep-seated horror of those events. As members of what we think of as a civilized culture, we rightly think of Hitler and the Third Reich with horror, vowing that “it could never happen here.” It is unthinkable to us that millions of people remained silent and did nothing to stop it. That many people just “did their jobs,” and were quietly complicit. That many bought into the propaganda hook, line, and sinker.

But Godwin’s Law also makes it difficult to have an honest discussion about the fears we have about policies that strike us as being on that slippery slope to such horrors. If you mention Hitler or Mussolini you’re automatically The Boy Who Cried Wolf. We all know that fable — but how many of us know the flip side: Cassandra? In Greek mythology, she was given the gift of true prophecy; but was also given a curse that no one would believe her.

The problem is that Hitler didn’t start by slaughtering millions. He started by exploiting resentment at Germany’s treatment after WWI, as well as an anti-Semitism that had been smoldering since the days of Luther. Having a clear enemy to demonize, fear, and blame can be a powerful weapon to unify a people. When people are angry and afraid, they are susceptible to manipulation through propaganda.

As a nation, we are at a crossroads. Despite our prosperity, simmering anger and fear seem to be rampant. Our politics are more polarized than ever, and we have lost trust in many of our institutions. By and large, our mainstream media is more interested in clickbait headlines and controversy than nuance and understanding.

I pray that we will be wise enough to take heed of the past.

Mental illness is not like a cold (mostly)

After a very long time, I have recently come to a painful realization: For a long time, I thought of my mental illness like a cold. Like a temporary inconvenience, something to be shrugged off.

When I have a cold, I usually feel better after a day or two, and I am tempted to jump back into action. That’s when the relapse happens — when I am feeling strong and proud, like I have vanquished my foe. Fortunately, despite my occasional bouts of foolishness, my body is healthy enough to still be able to fight off a cold.

I made the mistake of taking this mindset into my fight with depression. When I began to feel better, I figured I was healed! I don’t need this dumb diet, this lame meditation! I’m ready to post something controversial on Facebook! I’m ready to keep up with the latest news! Ready to confront someone on the Internet who is wrong! I can power through this stress!

It took me years to recognize that anxiety is not the same as worry. Christians aren’t supposed to have anxiety, after all, so I must not be trusting God enough. This just added guilt to the burden I was carrying. When people tell you to “shake it off,” or “snap out of it,” it just adds to the feeling of failure.

When symptoms are external, other people usually step in. They say: You’re sick — go home and take care of yourself! When symptoms are inside your head, however, it’s far more difficult for a friend, community, or even a spouse to “be there” for you. It’s hard to know what to say. It takes knowledge and wisdom, it takes transparency and vulnerability. A relationship or community like this is rare.

So I kept trying to power through my depression, never realizing that this regular exposure to fight-or-flight hormones was doing massive damage to my mind and brain. If untreated, the flu can turn into pneumonia and then into sepsis. This has killed very healthy people — and one of my heroes, Jim Henson.

Finally I have some to the point where I am able to form better habits and be open with enough people with my struggles. It’s humbling and painful. It still carries a stigma. Often I simply have to put up a front whenever I’m around people that really don’t understand. This is exhausting, and carries the danger of falling back into the old “I-can-do-this-alone” mentality.

There is no silver bullet solution to all this, just hard work. Medication can help, but it’s not a panacea.

If you are struggling with mental illness, find a community who understands. Humble yourself enough to do what you need to stay healthy and trust others with your struggle.

If you know someone with mental illness, learn about it. Be part of a community who understands and supports.