Rote Thankfulness

What are you thankful for?

I hate that question.

Why?

Because the answers always seem so rote. Family. Friends. Home. Health.

You aren’t thankful for those things?

I am, but that’s not the point. We have answers like that memorized. One day of the year, we give the most cursory thought to what we have before moving on to other concerns. We rarely stop to truly reflect on what we have to appreciate. Most of the year, we take things for granted. Then we set aside one day for token thankfulness.

Is that true for everyone? Or is that just your cynicism showing?

So it’s just me, projecting my own failing onto everyone else?

Is it?

I hate you.

Because I’m right?

… Maybe.

Set aside everyone else. What are you thankful for? And don’t give your rote answer. Don’t do the thing you hate. Really reflect. What are you thankful for?

That is a hard question.

Quit deflecting. What are you doing, right now?

Writing.

So?

I am thankful I can write?

Bragging, now?

No. I mean, I am thankful for the ability to hold a pen, the resources to own paper, the luxury of time. I am thankful I can write, whether or not I’m any good at it.

Okay. That’s a start. Anything else?

Ugh. I keep going back to negative things.

Look, it’s not a question of ignoring the bad. But you’ve got all year for that. Just a few moments for balance. You don’t need to pretend it’s all sunshine and roses. Just acknowledge some good.

I am thankful that there are other people who love and care for animals.

Really?

Yeah. It gives me hope. It connects me to other people, even if I don’t know them. I’m glad people feel something I do. And that animals are getting taken care of.

Okay, then.

For that matter, I am thankful for the internet, for showing me that there are others who share my values, my concern about the world. As much crap as there is, it’s good to know I’m not entirely alone.

You think it’s important to remember this more than one day a year?

Yes.

Do you think others might share that value?

… Yes.

Then – and I don’t mean to sound preachy – maybe dial back the cynicism a little?

… Yeah.

Just The Depression Talking

The world is a mess. People hate more readily, more broadly. Life is a chore. It’s hard to find any reason at all.

That’s just your depression talking.

I’m lazy and procrastinate. I’m unmotivated and squander my potential. I’m unremarkable and of no use to anyone.

That’s just your depression talking.

I’m inconsiderate, a bad friend. I’ve hurt people. I’m not good and shouldn’t be around others.

That’s just your depression talking.

So… what? All my thoughts are just my depression? Is that all anyone sees when they look at me? My depression? I have become defined by an illness. Nothing remains of me. My every thought, word, action is attributed to my depression.

That’s just your depression talking.

Unless it’s a happy thought, a positive word. If I act happy, people say that is the real me, even though I know it’s fake. The act lets other people feel comfortable, let’s them believe everything is alright. It’s necessary because if you show them how you really feel,

That’s just your depression talking.

So I lead a double-life. The life I fake for those around me, and the depression eating away inside. But neither is me. One is a fake, and the other is an illness that keeps me from trusting anything in my head. I don’t exist anymore. It’s all a lie. But I shouldn’t worry about it because

That’s just the depression talking.

Rituals

The sky was grey, and there was a chill in the air. Winter was not going away easily, which made a perfect setting for a cemetery visit. The stone in front of me listed a name and two dates, all the evidence that remained of a single life.

I know I could talk to her anywhere, but it always seemed important to come back here. I didn’t really believe that she remained in this place, but the tradition, the symbolism, was not easily ignored. Rituals become rituals for a reason. They have meaning. We imbue them with meaning. As much as I resist many rituals, this is one I still felt compelled to follow.

So I stood there, expecting snow or rain at any moment, and stared at the letters and numbers that had been carved in granite nearly thirty years ago. As I spoke, I found myself saying things I had said many times before. Apologies. Regrets. Even the occasional lame joke. Whatever came to mind to strengthen a connection that had lasted years.

I wondered, not for the first time, nor for the last, if she bothered listening, if she still cared. In the end, I decided it didn’t matter. If there was even a slight chance she heard, I wanted her to know she was not forgotten.

When the rain finally came, I said, my farewell, promising to return once more.

Mannaz and the Othering of God

Mannaz. The Divine Self. The aspect of the divine that resides within each of us. Split down the middle vertically, it contains Wunjo – Joy – on the left, and it’s mirror on the right. The Self is made of complexity.

When we other God – see God as external, as separate from ourselves – we deny our own divinity. We denigrate humanity and relegate the best parts of ourselves to something else.

Saint Augustine exemplifies this position very clearly. Human beings are so mired in sin and evil that we cannot choose the good without God’s grace. Unless God grants us a helping hand, we cannot even want to do good.

Thus if the Shadow is – according to Jung – those parts of ourselves that we deny in order to be acceptable to society, then the external God is where we place our highest ideals, the best parts of ourselves. Perhaps we do this because even though we deny our Shadow, we still feel the guilt and shame of it and refuse to believe we are good. Perhaps it is more superficial than that, that we are taught from a very early age that God is good, that all goodness comes from God, and that we are unworthy of God’s love (though God loves us anyway). Between the Shadow and God, it’s a wonder that there is anything left of us at all.

Gandhi explained that returning violence for violence was not human nature, but animal nature. Refusing to meet violence with violence did not make us divine; instead, it makes us more fully human. The import of this cannot be overstated. If we place nonviolence within the divine, and then treat the divine as other, we have an excuse to be violent. By othering the divine, we give ourselves license to live as less than. We are “only human,” after all, as though being only human is not, itself, a stunning thing.

When we acknowledge the divine within, we eliminate our excuses for not living as our best selves. We take full ownership and responsibility for our actions. What’s more, we must acknowledge the divine in others. When we see human beings as less than, when we other God, we license, not only our own shortfalls, but also mistreatment of others. If you are just human, my treatment of you is only important as far as it accords, or doesn’t, with God’s will. If you are divine – as am I – then I need no outside reason to justify showing you respect and kindness. You are important in your own being. If God is other, then you are insignificant.

Mannaz, then, is a reminder of who we are, not just ourselves, but everyone. We are, each of us, divine. We should act like it and treat others accordingly.

“Pull Up A Pencil”

It was late. Very late. But there was homework to do before tomorrow. It was the big contradiction of my freshman year of college. I always finished my homework, but I never started it before midnight. Either doing it earlier or not doing it all would have been better for my health, but I had too much fun socializing to seriously consider the former, and the latter was ruled out by my sense of responsibility for school, such as it was. So I was often up until four in the morning, trying to get things done before my 8 AM class.

Tonight was no different. My roommate was already asleep in our room, and there were people still watching TV in the lounge. As a result, I retreated to the only relatively quiet place I could find, the lobby.

It was getting hard to focus on the words, so I decided to take a break. I stood and walked around the lobby trying to wake myself up a bit. Near the door to the building sat the nightguard. They were on duty all night to make sure only residents or their guests entered the dorm. Her head was down, pencil in hand, working on something.

Without thinking about how creepy it might seem, I walked over to see what she was doing. She had a book of logic puzzles open, and she was working on one. When she noticed me, she slid the book over some so that the right hand page wasn’t in front of her. “Pull up a pencil,” she said as she held one up.

I had loved logic puzzles for years, so I took the number 2 and kneeled down in front of the book. She continued working on her puzzle as I made my way through the one she had offered me. When I finished, I thanked her and walked back to my actual homework.

And that is how I met one of my very best friends.

Judgment Day

“So on Judgment Day,” he could hear the preacher pronounce those capital letters, “God will confront you with all of your sins. Only those who have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior will be admitted into Heaven. Everyone else will be condemned to Hell for all of eternity.”

On the way home, he kept thinking about what the preacher had said. Finally he asked his mom about it.

“Mom, am I going to Hell?”

She looked at him in the rearview mirror. “No, honey. You’ve been saved. You’ll go to Heaven. You don’t have to worry.”

“What about you?”

“I’m saved, too. We’ll be together in Heaven.”

“Is Dad saved?”

There was a pause before she answered. “No, honey. He isn’t. But that’s why it’s important to witness to him, so that you might get saved some day.”

“Oh.” He didn’t ask anymore questions after that. But he also didn’t stop thinking about it.

Later that night, he made up his mind. When Judgment Day came, if his dad wasn’t saved, he would insist on going to Hell in his place. It was the best solution his eight-year-old mind could come up with. The only worry he had was that God would allow it, but insist that the person whose place he would take had to be randomly chosen. He would still make the trade, he decided. If his dad wasn’t going to be there, then he didn’t want to be there, either.

Memory

For as long as I can remember, I have had a strong aversion to being waved across the street by a motorist when I’m walking. I do not know when this started or why. If I come to a corner and a car stops there, I try to avoid making eye contact with the driver and wait until she or he goes through the intersection before crossing myself. I may even wait for several cars to go through, pretending as though I’m waiting for someone or going in a different direction. I’m not afraid to cross; I merely am uncomfortable with cars waiting for me to do so.

That was the not the only quirk I picked up as a child. Again as far back as my memory goes, I’ve noticed and memorized license plates. It was in part a desire to be responsible, so that I could give the information to the police in case of an accident. It was also, in part, paranoia. In case the owner of the car followed us home or something. Honestly, when you’re six, you don’t really have great reasons for the things you do. An idea gets into your head, and you try your best to follow it to its logical (and completely bizarre) conclusion.

I was around nine or ten years old and was walking home from school. Well, not exactly. We lived about 4 blocks from my school, but I wasn’t headed there. My dad worked with his father out of his parents’ house. At the time, I was too young to stay home alone, so after school I would walk to their place, about 10 blocks or so in a different direction, and wait for my dad to finish work.

My route took me east for a ways, and then north. I came to the corner where I was going to turn, and I saw a car headed towards the four-way stop. So I turned around and looked at the house behind me. The sidewalk was set back from the street a bit, so I thought it would be easy to look as though crossing the street was the last thing on my mind. I waited to hear the sound of the car pulling away.

Instead, I heard a man’s voice calling, trying to get my attention. He was white and scruffy and driving a boat of a car, probably an Oldsmobile. The large passenger-side window was rolled down, and he had an envelope in his hand. Across the street to the east was a mailbox. He wanted me to take the envelope and mail it for him. One thing I remember very clearly, I could see no address or stamp on the envelope. 

This was many years ago. Kids played outside long into the summer evening without adult supervision. They walked home from school alone. But we weren’t completely naïve. Just about every school year, a fireman came to the school to talk to us about fire safety. We were told how one in every three homes experiences a house fire and we needed to have a plan just in case. I don’t remember how many times I heard variations on this, but the house burning down was one of my big childhood fears. The other one was being kidnapped. (Well, there was also something about vampires behind my headboard, but that’s not relevant here.) Just like the fireman, a police officer would come regularly to talk to us about the dangers of kidnapping. (The drug talks were after my time. That’s how old I am.) He told us how to be safe. Mostly it was admonitions not to go the bathroom by yourself when you were out in public.

So I was constantly expecting my house to burn down. And to be kidnapped. That latter fear came rushing forward, and I started making excuses as to why I couldn’t help him. My mother was waiting for me, and I was already late. Obviously, that was a lie since I didn’t live with my mother, and I wasn’t headed home. But he couldn’t know that.

He repeatedly pointed out how close the box was, and it would be easy for me to mail it. But I continued to refuse. It wasn’t even that I was stubborn. I was terrified and all I could do was continue refusing; the thought of running away or calling for help never occurred to me. I just kept repeating that I couldn’t do it, that I had to get home. Exasperated, he drove off, squealing his tires as he raced right past the mailbox.

I finished walking to my grandparents’ house where I told my father. (I thought about not telling him. I didn’t want him to be mad at me, but I thought I should say something in case he tried to kidnap someone else.) He told me that unless I had his license plate number, there was nothing we could do.

And that’s how terrified I had been. I had completely forgotten to note his license plate. This thing I always did, I had forgotten entirely. This quirky habit that I have to this day, vanished when I could have used it the most. So we didn’t do anything. And I never saw the man again.

In the intervening years, I’ve had many occasions to think back to that day. (I still don’t like being waved across the street.) Maybe the envelope was addressed on the other side? But the envelope seemed rather flimsy, as though it was empty. And why didn’t he stop to mail it himself? Sure, it was less convenient, but if it was important enough to ask someone else to mail it, it needed to be mailed, didn’t it? Did he kidnap someone else?

I have no answers to any of these questions. But I doubt I’ll ever forget that day, and I’ll always wonder how close I came to being just another statistic.