When I was young, I fought with my brother tooth and nail (too often literally) seemingly all day, every day. Today, my siblings are my best friends, a blessing I don't even care has been negatively stereotyped for homeschoolers. Seriously. Sour grapes, I say.
One reason why this epic gruelling battle went on for so many years (I think it was responsible for most of my mom's white hairs) was that I wouldn't and couldn't see how I was to blame. Obviously my brother was the main culprit--because if he hadn't been so hyper active/noisy/interfering I would have happily stayed at my desk writing my stories and drawing my endless pictures of anthropomorphic cats and dogs in medieval dress (I don't know what this scores on your WeirdoMeter, but that's precisely how I spent the bulk of my free time for many years.) I was what they call a 'diem' child--or as one personality test diagnosed, an introvert (albeit a high-functioning one.) Happy to be by myself, doing my own stuff. Of course, it was my brother's fault for poking me first--annoying me--being noisy--causing me to lash out.
''It's HIS fault!" I wailed every time my mother had to separate us. "He started it first! He's irritating me!"
I see this same mentality when I work with kids. Fingers point. Defiant glares. Tears. "He keeps bothering me!" "She pushed me so I pinched her!"
We all have certain people in our lives who annoy us.
Maddeningly slow, reminiscent of the sloths in Zootopia. (loved that movie, by the way.What a fun and witty satire on human nature and the chemistry between different personalities...)
Nit-picky and hard to please, always criticizing so that you cringe whenever they volunteer their opinion.
Ungracious in the way they talk. Perhaps their humour makes you wince inside behind a strained smile.
Maybe stuff they've borrowed has a bad habit of never coming back.
Or perhaps they simply have bad breath, or a habit of standing intimidatingly close when they talk--
Maybe they simply have really different opinions, backgrounds, and priorities from us. Just deciding on a place to eat makes you see how different your budgets and expectations on food are...'so you think you're too good for Mac's?' 'what, vegetables? Seriously? Are you a health freak or what?' 'How on earth can you eat so little/so much??'
It's easy to get annoyed, even when other people don't mean to be annoying. When I was small I often got impatient and was rude to a young friend who kept calling. Like every day. Just wanting to talk about unimportant stuff. Unfortunately I had lots of IMPORTANT STUFF (and I even saw them in my mind capitalized) and the last thing I wanted to do was to be forced to listen to a long, unending phone call about virtually nothing at all. I'm afraid without being downright rude (thank God my parents would never have let me get away with that) I managed to be pretty unkind--curt, impatient, and brilliant at finding excuses for not being able to take a call.
I look back and realize the same entitled mentality lay behind my hasty 'bye got to go tell me next time' and my 'He started it!' defensive wail when my mom had to act as mediator and judge between my brother and I. Just because someone was annoying--whether unintentionally, or even purposefully--didn't justify my being mean to them. This was something my mom kept trying to impress on me all those cat-and-dog years, in her attempt to balance the invariably one-sided punishment.
I only realized and accepted this later when I was seeking salvation and, knowing I needed to truly see my own sin in order to repent and be saved, prayed for God to show me. He answered, in a very direct and real and personal way, when it felt near impossible, first by showing me this.
Just because I was annoyed, just because someone had done something which prickled me, didn't automatically give me the license to retaliate, to punish them for disturbing my peace or my happiness. It's harder to realize this when it is a legitimate wrong done to you, because indeed, wrong has been done and every conscience with its God-given ability to tell right from wrong knows that punishment must be meted, deserves to be meted.
But--a standard takeaway concept from many superhero and action movies, where it becomes what separates the good guys from the bad guys; their refusal to replicate the evil in the name of revenge.
Jesus, after all, suffered much more than mere annoyance, though I'm sure the dense disciples often got on His nerves with their inability to understand so many things.
He loved us selflessly when we hurt Him most.
I am someone who is easily and heavily influenced by emotion, and discouragement is very much an emotional issue. Like depression, it often comes as the convergence of various issues which are small, which you could handle on their own, if they weren't all hitting you at the same time; the combined weight of which knocks you down. You lie limp and passive under the heavy cloud of discouragement, without strength to move, without motivation to try and get up, without hope that you could escape even if you tried; and wonder why you had ever been excited about life at all, and thought you could ever do anything.
As such, I've often struggled with discouragement--recently, to be honest; reminding me it's a lifelong battle which no amount of spiritual maturity can immunize you against--something I should expect as long as I'm human, and by correlation, emotional. Spiritual maturity helps in dealing with discouragement, but it cannot completely prevent it.
I was clearing my storage space recently. That means boxes of old diaries, letters, schedules, notebooks of stories, sermon notes, travel journals. It was sobering and yet uplifting as I flipped through the little stack of well-worn, rather shabby, but very precious spiritual journals. Reading what I'd written over all those years made me realize that the discouragement and despair I had experienced--so often the reason for an entry (if only it was natural to document happy times as it is, ironically, to document sad ones; not because I actually want to remember them, but as a coping mechanism, a therapy of sorts)--could be categorized as discouragement with my own failures, and discouragement with the failures of others.
Forgive me for falling into sin so easily, so often, the same sin. I thought I could be wiser, stronger, but I'm seeing just how pitiable and helpless I am in the grip of sin and my own weak nature...a little beast, that's what I am. O God, forgive me even when my heart is numb and cold and I don't feel as sorry as I should--when I wilfully decide to do it, when I come crawling back again in shame asking for forgiveness. Break me out of this vicious cycle of my own making and set me free.
I feel so helpless, struggling not to feel guilty or depressed over everything I couldn't do, everything I wish I could do, everything I couldn't do as well or as much as I wanted to....God help me. Human limits are staring me in the face.
Self-pity. Despair. Loss of faith in grace (forgetting its very definition.) It alienates you from others--alienates you, most of all, from God. You draw away because you feel like you don't want them to know how unworthy you are, because they all seem so much better than you.
I feel disappointed and angry and hurt. I knew this is part of growing up but I never expected it to happen so traumatically. It makes me feel almost scared to think that everyone is as messed up and mistake-prone as myself, that perhaps being an adult doesn't so much mean you're mature now, but rather realizing that others aren't so much more mature than you as you'd always assumed...I feel so emotionally crippled by all this, unable to interact with people without feeling wary or speculating on their motives or imagining what they've heard or what they think.
Alternatively, people-oriented discouragement works the other way. Cynicism, resentment, frustration, even bitterness. Feeling disillusioned or disappointed in people. Feeling betrayed, let down, when you gave so much effort and time and invested yourself emotionally in someone. It embitters your relationships with others, alienating you from others as well if in a different way. You draw away because--to say it bluntly--you feel that they are not worth your interaction, whether specific people or just the whole of humanity in general.
I'm not sure which type of discouragement is more poisonous. Pulling yourself out of these ruts can seem almost impossible when you're lying at the bottom. How to trust grace? How to try again without feeling like a hypocrite? How to trust people, or avoid becoming cynical and defensive when a similar situation arises? How to rescue a relationship you feel disillusioned with?
I found an old post-it in my Bible, scribbled carelessly and tucked away so it obviously had been written at a time when it didn't mean as much to me as it eventually would. "What must we do if we find ourselves spiritually empty? Firstly, confess and put away any sin in our lives. Then we need to seek God's face in prayer and through His word" (this was taken from Desma Lewis' Fellowship Bible Study on 1st Samuel.)
In discouragement--regardless of what type--we must first confess and put away the sin in our lives. In discouragement with yourself, it's easy to confess. You see everything you've failed and done wrong already like a neon billboard. What's more challenging is to put it away. That means not only resolving not to continue in them--whether in sins of selfishness, idolatry, but even lack of faith--but also to move on. When we put away something we stop turning it about in our hands and staring at it from different angles.
On the other hand, discouragement with others requires a commitment to confront and confess our own sins with relentless honesty even as the sins of others loom big in our eyes--something, I think we would all know, is not easy. In bitterness, in pride, in being unloving and judgmental. I have sinned. When we acknowledge our own failures in God's eyes we stop pointing out the failures of others to God.
Why the Word? After the humbling process of confessing and putting away our sin, hopefully we've been recalibrated, so to speak, for a more balanced perspective--whether with which to see ourselves or to see others. In the first case, one which isn't so devastatingly self-centered; in the latter, one which (equally devastatingly) doesn't include ourselves. Hopefully we're able to let go of the very human prejudice of emotions and accept the objective truth of the Bible. Which means that no matter how big our sin--or the sin of others--Christ's death is bigger. Which means no matter how empty or incapable of trust we feel, God's power to enable and empower remains the same.
It's not easy. Discouragement is such an intensely personal and predominantly emotional trial that objective truth sometimes seems the last thing, in all its dryness, that can help us. But ironically, the very cold impersonality of objective truth is what we need when we're attacked by blinding, overwhelming, and often irrational or imbalanced emotion.
Looking through my journals, I was reminded of another phrase which had once been very important to me, at the time when all the uncertainties, fears, and doubts of college applications were the biggest thing in my life. That was the metaphor of driving on an unlit road at night--I experienced that once, as a passenger of course, during a violent tropical rainstorm in Malaysia; and it really was a tense, unreal experience. You couldn't see any further than the five feet in front of your headlights, in the dark and the thickness of the rain. But you had to press on, in faith, as long as those five feet were clear. The temptation to stay where you were was an illusion of safety--to stop would very well be fatal, even if moving forward posed a risk. The only way to get through was to keep going--slowly, perhaps, but ahead, as long as the five feet of road in front of you was clear.
Sometimes it was as simple--or more accurately, as hard--as that in discouragement. I might not know much but what little I knew was the right thing to do lay in front of me like that lighted space of five feet in the dark and storm. To do my best to resist bitterness and resentment. To fight for joy. To love others as well as I could with Christ as my example. Perhaps that meant the simple things I'd already been doing. Perhaps it meant something as unexciting as going back to the Bible, persevering in prayer even though it felt dry and meaningless, or simply just controlling myself.
'Show me in the way in which I should walk' (Psalm 143:8) has been a prayer of mine increasingly, in uncertainties but especially in discouragement.
Sometimes this 'way' isn't a significant choice or crossroads but simply the five feet in front of our headlights. To confess and put away our sin. To find guidance and comfort in the Word. No matter how alienated we feel from others or from God, to continue in what is right, until we hear the storm dying away, or see the dawn break through the rain.
The image above, which has been the header picture for the last years this blog has existed, is very meaningful to me.
That piece of sky was where I grew up. Which sounds strange, but shouldn't really because of the apartment tops peeping into the picture. Because that's exactly what apartments are, once the actual building's been torn down--which is what happened to my childhood home almost seven years ago.
That phrase threatens a deluge of sentimental nostalgia, I know, but I feel embarrassed at 22 to be very nostalgic, so don't worry.
However, it's thought-provoking to realize that I spent so many years of my life in a home that was so real and so important--down to the scratched parquet floors, doors with flimsy locks which we as naughty children knew exactly how to manoeuvre for various pranks, the whitewash coming off in neat round patches where we'd stuck up our drawings with BlueTac, the 'growth-wall' (possibly the only blank wall in the house) which we used to record the heights of everyone who lived in the house or visited the house, including our rabbit. So very real and tangible at that point of time. So necessary. And now merely a space in the air.
I spent all those years of my life in a space in the air. There's no mark of me there at all now--no stain on smudge in the sky to indicate all the intense living which took place there. It's sobering and just the littlest bit painful--there's the nostalgia for you--but also a very poignant reminder to me of what the word 'temporal' fully means in a Biblical sense, as the antonym of 'spiritual.'
We know the definition of temporal but we don't grasp the full impact of it. Which is understandable because all we've known is being temporal, and only sometimes we glimpse of our capability for anything more in vague longings and emotions.
To realize that actually, that is what life here on earth is. Very tangible. Very important and necessary, and legitimately so during that period of time. But one day all that will simply cease to exist--something greater will take its place--you won't have the satisfaction of being able to point and say 'ah, there's my mark.' 'There's where I was--I did that.' We won't spend our time in heaven looking down and reminiscing about our time on earth, the way we do when we look at old photo albums or get together with old friends.
Perhaps all we really take away is our memories, and how our experience changed who we are. I have so many memories of that home--beautiful, ecstatic, painful, important, and sometimes simply that warm swelling feeling pressing against your ribs, that quiet full feeling of contentment. I know the marks all those experiences, all that time I spent behind those now nonexistent walls, looking out of the now invisible windows, have made on me. But that's all. To cling to the physical entity of it, to mourn and idealize it as if there was some sort of magic in the concrete and plaster of that house, would be foolish, would be the sort of unhelpful and soppy nostalgia one sometimes sees and is vicariously embarrassed by in adults.
I remember when we first moved out we mourned, as sincerely and extravagantly as only children on the brink of growing up--consciously on the brink of growing up--could. Moving the last box out was a cruel ritual which left us close to tears. Every day in the new home made the old one a beautiful idyll so even memories of the leaking toilet became mildly romantic. Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov captured this sense of yearning so deeply associated with looking back on childhood: 'There is nothing a man cherishes more than the memories of his early childhood in his parents' home; this is always true as long as there was at least a little love and harmony in his family.' We made plans, I remember, if one of us became a millionaire (no big deal; no pressure) to recreate our home--not just the actual apartment we stayed in but the whole complex, and move all our dearly loved neighbours back into their old places (assuming they'd be overjoyed to be reunited with us.)
We knew we were being silly even as we planned this in all seriousness. What really lasted, what mattered at all, in fact, was how our memories and experiences in that home changed and affected us, made an impact on us and thence on the future.
One day in heaven, perhaps we'll look back and laugh to think how important everything here once was to us. The way we laugh when we remember how we once thought our life was over because of that dumb thing said or unglamorous picture someone posted online.
One day we'll be able to see that everything here crowding and pulling at our hearts and minds was just temporary--part of being alive, part of being temporal, important perhaps while it lasted but not even close to the ultimate meaning and purpose we were made for, except in how they changed us.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are